The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise? | January 12, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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7 Comments »

  1. I heard a wonderful performance of the Saint Saen Third Symphony in Middleton.
    And the Faure Requiem in a church in a small town, I forget which one.

    Comment by e smith — January 18, 2020 @ 3:54 pm

  2. Fascinating that no one (but a part-time reviewer) chose a MSO performance and NOBODY at all chose a performance of the WCO which in my opinion, has degenerated into a pop concert group.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 12, 2020 @ 10:32 pm

  3. Lots of good choices here.

    I’d go with Janet and the opening concerts of the UW School of Music’s new building and also the pianist performances of E. Ax.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 12, 2020 @ 6:39 pm

  4. I appreciated the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble’s choral concert in August.

    Comment by Ginny Moore Kruse — January 12, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

  5. I was quite taken with the UW Music School Collage Concert that was part of the Hamel Music Center’s opening celebration in October. It was great fun both in presentation and music. Hearing pieces race at you like that was very intense. What a nice way to introduce our new hall.

    Comment by Janet M Murphy — January 12, 2020 @ 10:47 am

  6. Definitely the Willy Street Chamber Players with Christopher Taylor, and the Pro Arte. Also the Oakwood Chamber Players 2019 season, and the New Music Festival (I think that’s what it was called) at First Unitarian — challenging but interesting music!

    Comment by Susan Fiore — January 12, 2020 @ 10:17 am

  7. I agree with the Mahler 8th, which I heard twice. University Opera’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Madison Opera’s “La Traviata” were excellent. But the performance I most enjoyed was Joyce Yang’s Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the MSO. If I can include a performance outside of Madison, Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta in Barcelona in September was transcendent!

    Comment by Larry Wells — January 12, 2020 @ 9:19 am


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