The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Perry Allaire – radio host, singer, conductor, writer of program notes and Renaissance man of music.

August 4, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

When it comes to classical music, it is hard to surpass Perry Allaire for being a well-rounded and knowledgeable citizen of the classical music world.

Allaire qualifies as nothing less than a Renaissance man of music.

Allaire (below) hosts a Friday morning classical music program called “Fantasia” on Madison’s community radio station, WORT-FM 89.9.

Perry Allaire

Classically trained in voice, conducting, music theory and music history, Allaire is also a veteran singer with Madison Savoyards, which puts on productions of Gilbert and Sulivan operettas each summer. (Below is Perry Allaire singing Wagner in 2009.)

Perry Allaire singing Wagner 2009t

For nearly 25 years, Allaire contributed program notes for concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

He also conducts the choir at Madison’s Holy Redeemer Church.

Perry Allaire recently spoke to Paul Baker (below), who hosts the “Only  Strings” program for the radio station WSUM at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Baker published his interview with Perry Allaire on the blog that he writes for the show.

Meet Perry Allaire.

Paul Baker at WSUM

Here is a link to the interview:

https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/perry-allaire-40-year-wort-veteran-host/


Classical music: “The Willies” –- the Willy Street Chamber Players -– excel in fabulous Bach and Mendelssohn at the last concert of the new group’s inaugural season. Don’t miss the second season next summer.

August 3, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Surely the greatest and happiest surprise of this summer’s music season is the sudden emergence of the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), a group of mostly string players that almost seems to have popped up out of the ground spontaneously.

Willy Street Chamber Players logo

They have introduced themselves in four concerts on successive Fridays this month—experimenting with shorter-length, one-hour programs, and giving three of them at 6 in the evening, and one family concert at Friday noon.

Each concert has drawn progressively larger audiences at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top) on Spaight Street, on the city’s near East Side.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Willy Street audience

Most important, the group involves a bevy of former University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music students who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who are simply brimming over with talent and with the joy of making music together.

Their final concert this season, on last Friday night, officially offered two works. As a “thank you” to the increasing number of sponsors and a swelling public, however, the group also gave a glowing performance of the Gavotte movement from the “Holberg” Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (below). (You can hear the tuneful Grieg played by a much larger and far less intimate chamber orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

edvard grieg

The Grieg prefaced their playing the first full-length work, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

As now properly recognized, the Bach concerto is a work for nine solo string players (three each of violins, violas, cellos — below top, second and third in that order respectively) with basso continuo from the harpsichord (below bottom).

The intricacy of the part writing, especially involving constant interaction of the six upper parts, is particularly well appreciated when one can actually watch the players, who presented the music with a splendid combination of dash and discipline. (And they solved the notorious problem of what to do with the two-chord middle “movement” by adding only the tiniest violin cadenza on the first chord—very sensible and responsible.)

Willy Street Bach violins

Wiily Street Bach violas

Willy Street Bach cellos

Willy Street Bach harpsichord Jason Kutz

The final, and larger, work on the program was the Octet in E-flat by Felix Mendelssohn. This is the creation of an astoundingly precocious 17-year-old genius, and by general agreement it is a virtual miracle of composition.

Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s recourse to such a demanding scoring was not without precedent. He composed this in 1825. At about the same time, in the years 1823-47, the violinist-composer Louis Spohr (below) wrote four “Double Quartets” opposing two discrete string quartets against each other.

Louis Spohr

And, quite frequently, in his writing Mendelssohn does adopt the same strategy, pitting two distinct groups against each other. But he also explores the possibilities of eight-part texture, rich in contrasting colors and contrapuntal invention. It both is, and is more than, a simplistic double quartet.

Our eight Willy Street players did position themselves (below) as two opposing string quartets — with the cellists out in front, for a novel emphasis on the bass line.

Wily Street Mendelssohn Octet

Once again, it was such a benefit to watch these players engage each other in so many different ways. And with what spirit! Here was the music of a teenage genius, played by eight young players who threw their youthful élan into their work with unbounded passion. Yet there was also discipline, and the most careful nuancing of each player’s lines.

I would say that this is possibly the best performance I have ever heard of this work, certainly in live concert—something up to the highest professional and artistic standards.

I find it difficult to express fully my excitement over the sudden creation of this marvelous pool of young musicians. They have made it clear that this was just their first season: they are planning to return next summer, with some possible activities in between.

For member biographies, news and other information, here is a link to the group’s website:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

With minimal promotion so far, based on simple word-of-mouth publicity, The Willies — as I call them — have already found a swelling and enthusiastic audience.

Madison’s lovers of highest-class chamber music should take note, support and attend. How can I say it better? They are simply fabulous! It is an enormous blessing to any community that is lucky enough to generate such players!


Classical music: It’s never too late! Retirement is the BEST time to start playing music -– or writing and painting -– says one expert who followed her own advice.

August 2, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear knows quite a few retired people who say they would like to start learning to play a musical instrument — either for the first time or else to pick up where they left off, usually in childhood.

But they quickly add that they hesitate because they think it is something you really have to do in childhood or at least when you are much younger.

Not so, says psychologist Francine Toder (below), who herself  took up the cello after retiring in her 60s. You can see other examples in the YouTube video at the bottom.

francine toder with cello

In fact, in her book “The Vintage Years,” Toder argues that retirement is the best time to unlock your creative self. That applies not only to learning a musical instrument but also to writing and to painting and other forms of the visual arts.

The Vintage Years book cover

In case you missed it when it was broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio, an interview with Francine Toder comes from the WPR program “To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Here is a link to the page. On it, you have to click on play the story. You can also leave a comment if you go through the security process of signing in.

And please leave a COMMENT on this blog with a comment about you own experience with learning the arts in retirement.

http://www.ttbook.org/book/benefits-playing-music-you-vintage-years

And here is a link to the home page for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which has the appropriate acronym TTBOOK:

http://www.ttbook.org

 


Classical music: What music gives you goosebumps or “skin orgasms”?

August 1, 2015
14 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A fan of the blog writes:

“Here’s a talker of a topic: Erotic reactions to musical moments.

goosebumps

“It’s not such a good video. But you could ask for suggestions.”

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/07/music-gives-some-people-skin-orgasms.html

And that is what I will do: Ask for suggestions of music you find sexy and have a physical response to, with a YouTube link if  possible.

Leave them in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The critics are unanimous — iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and others streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. CDs and vinyl are far better.

July 31, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The critics’ judgments are in and they seem unanimous: iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other similar streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. In the end, CDs and vinyl LPs are far better than streaming for a quality listening experience.

itunes logo complete

spotify logo

 

pandora logo

The difficulties apparently have to do with engineering and the limits of technology, specifically of the digital compression of sound.

Here are three good and convincing critiques to read:

From The Atlantic magazine:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/07/the-tragedy-of-itunes-and-classical-music/399788/

From the acclaimed prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-anxious-ease-of-apple-music

Alex Ross 2

Here is an analysis from the prolific and always interesting reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for National Public Radio (NPR) and its outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. She tackles other streaming services including Pandora and Spotify. She focuses on the organization and the difficulty of finding the music you want to listen to:

http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/06/04/411963624/why-cant-streaming-services-get-classical-music-right

anastasia tsioulcas


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players end their first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert of works by Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6.

July 30, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The new group The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — certainly the biggest and most successful music news story of this summer — will end its first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert on Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6 p.m.

Willy Street Brahms Sextet

The concert is at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, which has both a performance space with fine acoustics hall and plenty of free parking.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Admission is $12 for adults; $8 for students and seniors.

You could hardly ask for a better program, which features two undisputed masterpieces.

The first is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It is scored without violins but for lower strings and it is irresistible for its melodies and harmonies and especially for its driving energy and rhythm.

Bach1

The second work is the astonishing Octet -– really a double string quartet –- by Felix Mendelssohn (below) who composed it when he was only 16. It may well be Mendelsohn’s best work. It too is irresistible is its energy and melodies. It is thrilling and one of the quintessential chamber music works of all time! (You can hear the impetuous opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

mendelssohn_300

The Ear is going and so should you.

By all accounts, the inaugural season of the Willy Street Chamber Players -– which included everything from classic Handel, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak to new music by contemporary composers and a noon concert for families – has been a great success.

The fine playing — members also perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — was justly praised by many, and large audiences turned out.

Here is a link to a review The Ear did of the first concert:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/classical-music-the-ear-recommends-hearing-the-july-performances-by-the-new-east-side-group-the-willy-street-chamber-players-the-next-concert-is-tomorrow-at-noon/

It’s enough to make one hopeful about a second season for the group and to make one impatient to see the programs.

The Ear bets both are already in the works!


Classical music: Renowned Czech “pianist’s pianist” Ivan Moravec is dead at 84.

July 29, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The renowned Czech pianist Ivan Moravec (below) — known as “a pianist’s pianist” — died Monday at the age of 84. He died in Prague of complications from pneumonia.

ivan moravec playing

Moravec was known especially for his interpretations of Chopin, DebussyBrahms and especially Mozart – his playing of a Mozart piano concerto was heard on the soundtrack of the popular and Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom. He also played composers from his native land including Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek.

Ivan Moravec vertical young

Here are some obituaries:

From Gramophone magazine:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/pianist-ivan-moravec-has-died

From Classical Music magazine:

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/2015/07/ivan-moravec-9-november-1930-8210-27-july-2015/

From Voy Forums with mentions of awards:

http://www.voy.com/221392/165442.html

From critic Norman Lebrecht‘s blog Slipped Disc:

http://slippedisc.com/2015/07/a-great-pianist-has-died/


Classical music: The acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble performs its annual summer concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

July 28, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the critically acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble write:

When conductor Scott MacPherson convened some of Madison’s top singers in 2002, he had no way of knowing that the newly formed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below) would begin one of Madison’s most anticipated summer musical traditions.

Known as “Madison’s most temporary choir,” the ensemble – a semi-professional choir of approximately 60 singers – brings new life to over 500 years of choral music within a brief two-week rehearsal period.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble group concert dress

This intense spirit of camaraderie produces a singular remarkable experience, year after year. (You can hear the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sing the “Abendlied” (Evening Song) by Josef Rheinberger in 2012 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

This summer, Madison-area audiences have two opportunities to hear the 2015 program.

The traditional Friday night concert takes place on at 7:30 p.m. on this Friday, July 31, at Christ Presbyterian Church (below), located at 944 East Gorham Street in downtown Madison.

Christ Presbyterian Church

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ (below), located at 110 North Gammon Road, on Madison’s far west side.

Lutheran Church of the Living Christ

General admission tickets are available online at isthmusvocalensemble.org or at the door. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for students and seniors. 

The program, “Unconventional Images” is a tapestry of unexpected beauty, including works spanning from the 1500s up to brand new compositions, featuring a world premiere from composer Corey Rubin (below) entitled “The Snow Man.”

Corey Rubin

Director Scott MacPherson writes: “For these concerts, prepare your ears and mind to be led down an unconventional path, where you will ponder such images as the nativity, snow in the summer, sensual beauty, the desert, glory, mortality and divine renewal.”

Other featured works include “Three Nativity Carols” by the late Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below top); “Beati quorum via” and “Coelos ascendit hodie” by Charles Villiers Stanford; “Du bist aller Dinge schön” and “Fahet uns die Füchse” by Melchoir Franck; “Schaffe in mir Gott” by Johannes Brahms; the Gloria by Dominick Argento; and several newly composed pieces, including “Desert Rose” by Frank Wiley, as well as “I Sing to Use the Waiting” and “An Irish Blessing” by University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus, Andrew Rindfleisch (below bottom).

stephen paulus

Andrew Rindfleisch portrait

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble is led by Scott MacPherson (below), director of choral activities at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Its members include professional singers, choral directors, professors, lawyers, students and passionate advocates for the arts. The choir has performed by invitation at the North Central Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, commissioned several world premieres and released two professional CDs.

Isthmus Vocal Ensemble rehearsing with Scott MacPherson


Classical music: The Madison Savoyards did a disservice to itself and to Gilbert and Sullivan by using an “anime” or animation aesthetic for its production of “The Mikado.”

July 27, 2015
43 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

For its 53rd annual summer production, Madison Savoyards Ltd. offered its eighth presentation of the brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado. It was certainly the most problematical of those eight.

Badgered by threats of protest against the “stereotyping” of Japanese culture in this work, the Savoyards decided to slither away from “traditional” presentations, abandoning the creators’ very respectful use of Japanese setting and imagery as a mask for satirizing English life.

The group has this time engaged as stage director Melanie Cain, whose ventures with Fresco Opera Theatre here have shown her commitment to presenting works of the lyric stage in anything but their original character.

Melanie Cain full face

But changes should be made to add something; hers detracted and distracted. The result, visible in a two-week run at Old Music Hall on the UW campus, was pretty anarchic in visual terms.

Working on a set that was a simplified Japanese stereotype in itself, the cast was decked out in a wild disarray of ditsy costumes and crazy wigs to create a new stereotype of pop absurdity — all in the name of supposedly following current Japanese “anime” or animation graphics.

MIkado anime 2 school girls CR Mark Frohda

Only the elaborate costumes for the Mikado himself and for Katisha, his “daughter-in-law-elect,” in their wildness, catch something of their characters, while that for Pooh-Bah, the pompous power-grabber and egomaniac, conversely suggests British spoofing.

The staging had wide ups and downs. The individual movements and the ensemble action displayed good ideas, even if they were not always executed smartly, while the chorus was given sloppy direction with inadequate drilling.

Mikado anime 4 Nanki-Poo and gentlemen CR Mark Frohda

The cast, likewise, was uneven, with only one or two soloists sub-par. Michael Ward’s Pish-Tush proved inept in both singing and movement, while Dennis Gotkowski as the romantic hero, Nanki-Poo (below left), was vocally weak and visually ridiculous — looking like a pirate.

As his beloved Yum-Yum, Angela Sheppard (below right) was visually disappointing but vocally strong. To her sidekick Pitti-Sing, Angela Z. Sheppard brought some good comic potential but her diction was uneven. Matt Marsland was too straightforward to be a successfully comic Ko-Ko.

Mikado anime 3 Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum CR Mark Frohda

Best were Anthony Ashley, who was excellent in both singing and acting as Pooh-Bah; Bill Rosholt as a majestic Mikado; and, despite some moments of blurred diction, Meghan Hilker as the dragon-lady Katisha (below center).

Mikado anime 1 Meghan Hilker as Katisha CR Mark Frohd 1

The chorus of eight or 10 women and only six men was pretty scrawny. The pit orchestra, on the other hand, was excellent under music director Blake Walter (below, in a photo by John Maniaci) of Edgewood College.

Alas, the needless use of projections during the overture (heard at bottom in a YouTube video) quite distracted the audience from listening to their fine playing of it.

blake walter john maniaci

Given the wackiness and color, the audience seemed generally entertained. But that is hardly the only proof of the pudding, when responsible fidelity to the character of the work is sacrificed for cheap effects.

As someone with my own long years of devoted involvement with Madison Savoyards, I find it painful to have to write so negatively. But let’s be frank: This was not one of the productions that, as so often otherwise, adds renewed honor to this proud company.

Will its production of The Gondoliers next summer be perverted by protests from Italian-Americans about stereotyping Venetians?

 


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: “Interlude” by Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar.

July 26, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It happened again.

There I was, writing in the early morning.

I was also listening to Wisconsin Public Radio, which often serves as background music while I write.

But this particular morning host Stephanie Elkins played a piece that I had never heard. It stopped me in my tracks.

It is so beautiful and poignant, and it moves so slowly and movingly that The Ear thought you should also hear it.

It is the Interlude by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar from his cantata “The Song.” If his other music is as good, Stenhammar (below) might well deserve a rediscovery. He was a prolific composer with several symphonies and piano concertos to his credit.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

This performance of the Interlude, featured in a YouTube video, was done in 2014 by renowned conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

The Ear hopes you enjoy this rarely performed work as much as he did.

Perhaps my memory is faulty. But I don’t recall hearing it performance live in Madison.

Yet it might make a nice curtain raiser or encore for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.


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