The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and soloist Ben Beilman deliver the best Beethoven Violin Concerto that The Ear has ever heard live

October 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people see the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) as competitors.

WCO lobby

But that’s not how The Ear sees them.

The Ear sees symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras not as competitors but as complements.

The two can serve as role models for each other. A symphony orchestra can aim to achieve the transparency and clarity of the smaller group; the chamber orchestra can aim to achieve the richness and bigger sound of the larger ensemble.

Almost two weeks ago, that is exactly what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and conductor John DeMain did with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland and especially the big, loud and brassy Ethel Merman-like Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Here is how The Ear heard that performance:

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

So how did the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra do in meeting the challenge?

In a word — superbly.

The WCO did so last Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell.

The program started with one of those welcome rarities that Sewell has a knack for unearthing. This time the native New Zealander played the piece “Landfall in Unknown Seas” by Douglas Lilburn (below), whom Sewell described as the Kiwi Copland.

Well, maybe, though The Ear finds Aaron Copland’s music more interesting and emotionally moving than the clearly modern but tonal and accessible music by Lilburn, whose centennial is this year.

douglas lilburn

The piece — written to commemorate the tricentennial of the discovery of New Zealand — was hobbled with one of those puffily pretentious and over-the-top occasional celebratory poems, which was recited by actor James Ridge (below) of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. It treated navigation and discovery as metaphors of something much bigger than the discovery of New Zealand.

All in all, it proved an interesting but not arresting piece, a curiosity worth hearing but not repeating.


James Ridge

Then came the rarely played Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a kind of Late Romantic pastiche that reminds one of the “Classical” Symphony by Sergei Prokofiev. One could hear strains of earlier composers such as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in this charming work that once again is worth hearing but maybe not repeating or at least not soon.

To be fair, critic John W. Barker disagreed in his review for Isthmus:

In both cases, Sewell (below) and the various sections of the WCO brought not only the kind of transparency or clarity that one expects from the WCO but also a robustness that made the orchestra seem bigger than it looked.


Yet it was in the second half where the WCO really showed its stuff.

The piece was the formidable Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist was the 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman (below), making his Madison debut.

Benjamin Beilman close up playing

Together, Beilman and Sewell delivered what is the finest and most exciting live performance of the famous and famously difficult concerto that The Ear has ever heard. It possessed intimacy as well as heroics. (You can hear Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sewell shaded the piece and brought both chamber orchestra transparency and symphony orchestra heft to the work. He also emphasized Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, a legacy from his days as a student of Franz Joseph Haydn. This time the often thorny Beethoven score seemed smoother and more decipherable.

Beilman, for his part, is already a master of the kind of small details that make a huge difference. He is also not afraid to play softly.

Beethoven (below) was a master crafter but not a great melody writer, and often the opening movement can often seem little more than a patchwork of scales and runs, chords and arpeggios.

beethoven BW grim

But not this time. Beilman made this often flat-sounding violin part exciting with the subtleties he brought to it. He found hidden melodies and camouflaged suggestions of a theme, all delivered with a great tone from his modern 2004 violin.

One unusual touch was the cadenzas. Beethoven didn’t write any for the violin. When he transcribed this work for the piano he composed piano cadenzas. And those were the basis of what Beilman, the top winner of the Montreal International Violin Competition and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, used for his exciting cadenzas.

Tempi mattered too. This long, dense concerto moved right along, and when it was done, the performance drew an immediate standing ovation from the audience of 900 or so.

And here’s the thing: At no point did the chamber orchestra seem to lack the horsepower needed to drive this big and iconic piece of music. Sewell and Beilman were well matched in projecting a big, rich sound and intense interpretation that engaged and excited you from beginning to end.

The audience even drew two encores from Beilman, both solo pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (below), the ultimate test of a violinist. One was the songful slow movement from the Solo Sonata in C Major; the other was the lively Gavotte from the Solo Partita in E Major that almost seems a mirror image of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto.(ATTENTION ALL SOLOISTS: Please announce your encores!)


The first Bach movement, by the way, was also the piece that Beilman played at the wedding this summer where his sister married Joe Morris, the gifted principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra who so stood out in the Copland concerto two weeks ago.

Plus, Beilman’s parents and grandparents hail from Madison.

So young Benjamin Beilman has roots in and ties to Madison.

Could that mean he will return soon?

The Ear sure hopes so.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs a program of instrumental and vocal music of 16th-18th centuries on Saturday night. Plus, tenor J. Adam Shelton gives a FREE song recital at noon on Friday.

October 7, 2015
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature tenor J. Adam Shelton and pianist Rayna Slavova in music by Robert Schumann, Lee Hoiby, Ricky Ian Gordon and Richard Hunley.

By Jacob Stockinger

The very accomplished musicians and friends at what is probably the oldest early music, period instrument and historically informed performance group in the area write to The Ear:

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble invites you to a concert of baroque chamber music on this Saturday night, Oct. 10, at 8 p.m. in the Gates of Heaven historic synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street, in James Madison Park in downtown Madison.

Members (below) include Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Brett Lipshutz, traverse; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Mary Perkinson, baroque violin; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Monica Steger, traverse; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble 2014

Tickets will be sold at the door only: Admission is $20; $10 for students. For more information: call 608 238-5126, email at, or visit

The program includes:

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643): “Occhi che sète” and “Begli occhi, io non provo”

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (ca. 1620–1680): Sonata Quarta

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704): Miserere à deux dessus, deux flûtes et basse continue H 157

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Suanate da Camera, Due Violini e Violone e Cembalo, Sonata XII (Folia), opus 1 nr 12; Theme with 19 variations

Benedictus Buns (1642-1716): Ave Maria, Due Cantus cum III Instrumentis

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767): Suite in e-minor from Tafelmusik, selected movements (performed in a YouTube video at the bottom by the acclaimed Jordi Savall and the Concert des Nations). 


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians opens its new season with an impressive performance of unusual Baroque concertos in a new venue. Plus, UW students give a FREE concert of opera arias Saturday night.

October 6, 2015

ALERT: This Saturday night at 7 p.m., voice students from the UW-Madison School of Music will give a FREE and PUBLIC concert of opera arias at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, off the Capitol Square.

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.


By John W. Barker

The Madison Bach Musicians gave the first of their three concerts of this season on Saturday night. And this time they did so in a novel venue, Immanuel Lutheran Church (below is the exterior). This handsome space on the near East Side has emerged in recent months as a concert site of growing popularity.

immanuel lutheran church ext

The program was devoted to “Baroque Concertos,” and it was introduced by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below) with his usual wit and insight. (Performance photos are by John W. Barker.)

MBM Trevor Stephenson at Immanuel concertos

The chronological span of the music presented ran from the High Baroque of the late 17th century through the Late Baroque, and even Post-Baroque of the first half of the 18th century.

Of the four works presented, the first one was not a concerto at all, but an extraordinary ensemble piece by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704, below). Many Renaissance and early Baroque composers had created sound paintings — both vocal and instrumental evocations of battle. But Biber’s Battaglia, with its polytonalities, went far beyond anything before, and perhaps since, all the way down to Charles Ives.

Heinrich Biber

The second of its eight short movements evokes a military encampment of an army of very mixed personnel, each celebrating its individuality in a quodlibet or medley piece of eight separate song tunes played simultaneously, in willful chaos. And the penultimate seventh represents the battle itself with surging textures and wild string plucking to suggest gunshots.

The 11 string players, plus Stephenson on the harpsichord, made a whale of a show out of it, all on their elegant “early instruments.”

MBM Biber Battaglia

Throughout the program, the concertmaster, violinist Kangwon Kim (below), played a notable role as the true leader of the ensemble. But she was also given her place as a brilliant soloist — first in the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, the most familiar selection in the concert. This she played with her usual sensitivity and stylistic confidence.

Kangwon Kim

The most novel work was a Cello Concerto in A Major by Leonardo Leo (1694-1744, below top), the leader of the important Neapolitan School of instrumental and vocal music in the early 18th century. The least familiar music on the program, this four-movement work gave soloist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom, seated in center) a chance to display a blazing virtuosity.

leonardo leo

MBM Steuart Pincombe in Leo concerto

Finally came a rarely heard work by a well-known composer, Antonio Vivaldi. His Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo, in B-flat (RV 547) gave the vivacious Kim and the fiery Pincombe a perfect duet vehicle for display of their talents. The final movement was dazzling, and if they had repeated it as an encore — which I wish they had done — they would have raised the roof. (You can hear the double concerto by Vivaldi in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

MBM Kim and pIncombe in Vivaldi double concerto

Clearly, Immanuel Lutheran has a growing future as a concert site. And the Madison Bach Musicians are off to a brilliant season. Watch for the annual Christmas concert on Dec. 12, and the correctly scheduled Easter (NOT Christmas) performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah on April 8 and 10; all of these will be at the First Congregational Church.

Classical music: The University of Wisconsin-Madison hosts its second annual Brass Festival this Friday through Sunday.

October 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

A fanfare, please!

The brassier, the better!

Last year’s inaugural Brass Fest at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music proved so successful that another will take place later this week.

This year’s Brass Fest – which seems on its way to becoming an annual event — will run from this coming Friday, Oct. 9, through Sunday, Oct. 11.

The organizer and director of the festival is the virtuoso trumpeter John Aley (below), who teaches at the UW-Madison and is also principal trumpet with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He also gives workshops at schools and festivals around the country, including the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

john aley color

Some festival events are FREE while others -– concerts on Friday and Saturday nights — require admission that benefits the scholarship fund at the UW School of Music.

The repertoire is varied and includes classical music, jazz and folk music.

The lineup of performers is impressive.

It includes the Axiom Brass Quintet (below), which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom:

Axiom Brass

It includes trumpeter Adam Rapa (below top) and singer Elisabeth Vik (below bottom):

Adam Rapa

Elisabeth Vik

And it includes the UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below):

Wisconsin Brass Quintet

But the details are so many and the impressive biographies of performers so long that The Ear thinks it is better not to duplicate them. So instead I am directing readers right to the UW-Madison School of Music’s website and A Tempo blog where you can find out all the details.

Here are three links:


Classical music: Playing musical chairs in The Big Apple: The New Yorker magazine gives you the dirt on who might succeed James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic.

October 4, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

They are two of the most high-profile jobs in the world of classical music and they are both in New York City: the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

And right now candidates are being examined as possible successors to their current heads, James Levine and Alan Gilbert respectively.

According to a story in The New Yorker magazine, one major player reportedly is the acclaimed firebrand and openly gay French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for Getty Images), who currently heads the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guess which post he is a candidate for?


Another major candidate seems to be the conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below). Can you guess for which post?


The Ear asks: Whatever happened to American candidates?

Are we going backwards from the Leonard Bernstein achievement of putting American maestros on a par with European or other foreign conductors?

To be fair, though, some report that Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop, currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, could be a contender for the New York Philharmonic post.

Anyway, the recent New Yorker magazine had a very good take on the game of musical chairs being played around the two major vacancies.

The story shows careful research and excellent deep sourcing. But it also reads a bit like an engagingly conversational gossip column.

Maybe that is because it is written not by music critic Alex Ross but by Russell Platt, who is the classical music editor for the Goings On About Town column that starts the magazine.

Here is a link to an excellent read and what seems to be a pretty good crystal ball about the future leaders of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

It’s great reading for a Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!

Classical music: It’s a busy week for the Pro Arte Quartet of the UW-Madison with concerts on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday night. Plus, Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino performs at Farley’s House of Pianos on Sunday afternoon.

October 3, 2015
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REMINDER: The Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos opens this Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. with a performance by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino. The program includes music by Felix Mendelssohn; the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue at Cesar Franck; and the 12 Etudes, Op. 10, by Frederic Chopin. For more information, visit:

By Jacob Stockinger

The Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) has a busy concert schedule ahead of it this week.

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet, the longest active string quartet in the history of music, are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

On this Sunday, starting at 12:30 p.m., the Pro Arte will open the new “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” series, as it has done for close to 40 years.

The program includes: the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1799-1800) by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Langsamer Satz (slow movement) for String Quartet (1905) by Anton Webern; and the String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428 (1783) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But for the second year in a row, the program will be streamed live on the Chazen Museum of Art’s website rather than over Wisconsin Public Radio, which pulled the plug on the venerable and acclaimed live concert series that presented chamber music and recitals by individuals and ensembles around the state.

You can attend the concert in person in Brittingham Gallery 3 for FREE. And here is a link, embedded in an image, for streaming it live:


Then at 7:30 p.m. on this coming Wednesday night, the Pro Arte will perform a FREE concert with the acclaimed and prize-winning violist Nobuko Imai (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) as the special guest artist.

Nobuko Imai photo: Marco Borggreve always credit name photographer

The program is the String Quintet in C Minor, K. 406, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 87, by Felix Mendelssohn. Both works are scored for string quartet plus an extra viola. (The Mozart string quintet is a transcription of an earlier Wind Octet. You can hear the first movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link with more information about Nobuko Imai who will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.


Classical music: Rising star Isabelle Demers opens the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Overture Concert Organ season this coming Tuesday.

October 2, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Canadian organist Isabelle Demers (below) will open the 11th Overture Concert Organ series for the Madison Symphony Orchestra with an unusual recital this coming Tuesday night, Oct. 6.

The concert, which includes her own transcriptions of orchestral works, is at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street.

Music Department – Isabelle Demers, Organ – Horace Maxile, Theory – Jones Concert Hall – 08/21/2012

In addition to performing works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sergei Prokofiev, Henry Martin, Max Reger, George Thalben-Ball and Louis Vierne, Demers in her Madison debut will also perform sections of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous orchestral work Scheherazade, which she has transcribed for the organ.

For the specific works on the program, go to:

Demers (below), who was recently appointed Professor of Organ and head of the Organ Department at Baylor University, has established herself as one of North America’s most virtuosic organists, and is also renowned worldwide as a brilliant performer who consistently enraptures audiences.

She has released recordings including works by Max Reger and Rachel Laurin, which have been praised as “profound and searching” and “superbly produced.” (You can hear Isabelle Demers perform a dramatic work by Rachel Laurin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Isabelle Demers 2

General admission for the concert is $20 and tickets can be purchased at, the Overture Box Office or (608) 258-4141.

Student rush tickets are $10 day of show with a valid student ID (see

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) commissioned the Klais custom-built Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the stunning backdrop of all MSO concerts.

Overture Concert Organ overview

To see the Overture Concert Organ series of concerts for 2015-16 or to subscribe at a 25 percent savings, visit: or call (608) 257-3734.

Classical music: Here’s why the opening concert of the Madison Symphony Orchestra proved a stunning success.

October 1, 2015

ALERT: This Sunday afternoon the UW Chamber Orchestra, playing under conductor James Smith, will give a FREE concert at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program includes the Serenade for Strings by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and the “Death and the Maiden” string quartet by Franz Schubert as arranged by Gustav Mahler.

By Jacob Stockinger

The critics and audiences all agreed: The season-opening concerts last weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) proved a stunning success.

MSO playing

As The Ear heard it, here’s why.

Of course there are the usual reasons: One was the balanced program that MSO music director John DeMain chose to highlight his ensemble players without a guest soloist. It featured beautiful and dramatic music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland.

Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 was crisp and dark, dramatic but not melodramatic, befitting the opera “Fidelio” that it was originally intended for.

If you missed the opening movement of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto — written for jazz great Benny Goodman — The Ear is sorry to report that you have already missed a high point of the new season.

It was that gorgeous and that elegiac, that moving and that unforgettable. It was nothing short of sublime. (You can hear the first movement in a YouTube video at the bottom)

Then there was the soloist — MSO principal clarinet Joe Morris (below), who showed in the Copland what an incredible talent he possesses, a talent that allowed him at 22 to beat out 45 other clarinetists in blind auditions for his post. His pitch and tone, his technique and expressiveness all make his playing the clarinet – not an easy instrument to master – seem as effortless as breathing.

Jennifer Morgan MSO oboe by Joe Morris

But The Ear found another reason for the concert’s success, one that he credits to longtime music director and conductor John DeMain, who is starting his 22nd season in Madison.

It has to do with the clarity and precision of the playing, the careful dynamic balances, tempi and the delineation of the structure of each work.

DeMain (below) made sure that each section of the orchestra and each part of every work could be heard distinctly, and that helped you to hear how one part or section, of the score or of the orchestra, related to others.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No music event in Madison leaves The Ear with more food for thought than each summer’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

And at the most recent one, co-founder and co-artistic director John Harbison who teaches at MIT and who, as a composer, has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, commented on the unsurpassed ability of Beethoven to allow listeners to understand the structure of the sound they were hearing in his compositions.

That, said Harbison (below), is a major reason why the music by Beethoven has survived and that of many of his contemporaries has not.


Harbison’s analysis came to mind during the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert.

Since he took over, DeMain has brought each section up to an impressive level of performance The strings have been excellent for a long time; the winds and the percussion have also caught up.

But the brass really showed it stuff this time, especially in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4, which is a very brassy piece.

And DeMain (below) did something important. He illuminated structure by imparting order. He gave each section the kind of shading and space it needed by offering it time to breathe.

He allowed the audience to hear how parts related to the whole. He allowed you to get inside the score and the notes, to step inside the sound and hear the sense  it made and the logic it possessed.

John DeMain conducting 2

In short, John DeMain offered us music that was both deeply emotional and convincingly intelligent.

You felt that he was conducting you as well as the players.

The effect was to create clarity and color, distance and immediacy, all at the same time.

It’s not only the players who have grown during John DeMain’s 22-year tenure.

So has Maestro DeMain.

And, thanks to him and his players, so have we.


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson talks about the Baroque concertos that the Madison Bach Musicians will perform this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

September 30, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear apologizes for mistakenly listing this item last week: The weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the historic  First Unitarian Society of Madison, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located at 900 University Bay Drive, begin the new season this week. This coming Friday, Oct. 2, at 12:15-1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium, mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sanuda and pianist-composer Jeff Gibbens will perform songs by Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Manuel de Falla and Jeff Gibbens.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend Trevor Stephenson, the founder and artistic director as well as the keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians, writes:

The Madison Bach Musicians (below) is thrilled to start its 12th season this weekend with an entire program of baroque concertos for strings. I will be discussing the program today on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Midday program with host Norman Gilliland from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

There will be two performances: this coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. at  Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street, on the near east side; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at Holy Wisdom Monastery on the far west side at 4200 County M in Middleton. I’ll give pre-concert lectures at both events at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Tickets are $28, $23 for students and seniors over 65, in advance; $30 and $25 respectively at the door. Student rush tickets are $10 and are available 30 minutes before the concert. For information about single tickets and subscriptions, go to:

Our soloists will be MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below top) and internationally renowned baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom).

Kangwon Kim

Steuart Pincombe

Right out of the gate, we’ll dive into a programmatic 17th-century masterpiece, Battalia (Battle, heard played by the renowned Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations in a YouTube video at the bottom) , by Heinrich Biber (below).

Composed around 1673, Battalia’s sequence of epigrams outlines a timeless narrative: from the drunken good humor and singing of disparate songs in several keys at once (long, long before Charles Ives) in the soldiers’ camp, to the sabre rattling of Mars, to the love song (aria) before the battle, to the battle itself, to the lament of the wounded musketeers (the slow descending chromaticism must be the oozing of wounds).

Biber’s sense of just how far to take each scene is what makes the work memorable. His instinct here is unerring in knowing how many repetitions to give a motive before finally closing it with a cadence — Scarlatti and Stravinsky are later masters of this technique.

Heinrich Biber

After Biber, we’ll move on to the elegant and rightly famous Violin Concerto in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). Bach learned an immense amount about ritornello form from his careful study of Antonio Vivaldi, whose music we’ll hear from at the end of the program.

In ritornello structure, the band and the soloist trade off sections; the band’s sections are full and fleshed out, more like a crowd or a Greek chorus, the soloist’s material is usually more intricate and virtuosic.

But the soloist and the band are only minimally contrasted in baroque style, since usually the band backs up the soloist and in many performance approaches the soloist will also play along during the band’s louder sections; the feeling is very convivial.

MBM chamber ensemble, April 2015

I’m always amazed by how much Bach’s music is at once thoroughly inspired by Italian music — with its leaps, drive and energy — and yet is never overrun with Italianisms.

Take the opening ritornello of this violin concerto. The first four measures could come from almost any Italian master, and then Bach brilliantly extends and twists and cantilevers the cadence for another 20 measures to set the stage for the soloist’s refined entrance in the upbeats to measure 25.

The Andante middle movement has a compelling, heartbeat-like rhythmic underpinning (regularly punctuated by a swaying figure) in the opening ritornello, which then gives way to the solo violin’s utmost tenderness and rhetorical conviction. The finale is a propulsive gigue in the somewhat unusual meter of 9/8.


The piece on our program that very few in the audience will have heard before is the Cello Concerto in A major by Leonardo Leo (below). Leo was born near the end of the 17th century in Naples, where he worked for much of his career, writing primarily both comic and serious operas.

His cello concertos date from around the mid-1730s and are characterized by transparency of texture and form that in some ways make them precursors to the coming neo-classical style of the later 18th-century. It is not certain that he played the cello, but the writing in the concertos is idiomatic, colorful and virtuosic. MBM is delighted that guest cellist Steuart Pincombe has brought this work forward for these concerts.

leonardo leo

The final work is Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat major, RV 547. Vivaldi (below), nicknamed the “Red Priest” because of his magnificent mane of red hair, was of course a spectacularly gifted violinist who wrote hundreds of compositions for that instrument. But he also teamed the violin with the cello on several occasions.

I’m always awed by Vivaldi’s consistently successful use of irregular phrase lengths. The music just seems to roll on out there and be perfectly balanced, but the measure groupings are often in fives or sevens, and not so much in the four-measure groupings that typically connote stability. A few other composers have mastered this technique of hiding wonderfully asymmetrical structures, and J. S. Bach is most notable.


The entire concert will be played on period instruments: gut strings and baroque bows. We’re also delighted to welcome to this concert the specialist on the violone (baroque double bass) Marilyn Fung(below) from Michigan.

Marilyn Fung


Classical music: UW alumna and opera diva Brenda Rae returns to wow the crowd with her virtuosic singing while the UW Symphony Orchestra puts its strengths on display.

September 29, 2015

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.


By John W. Barker

The concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening night was hyped largely for the appearance of the brilliant young soprano Brenda Rae (née Kinkert in Appleton, Wisconsin).

Soprano Brenda Rae

An undergraduate in the UW-Madison School of Music, and participant in University Opera productions a few years back, she has since moved on, through the Juilliard School, to a burgeoning career in German opera houses. This concert was the climax of her weekend return here to help promote the funding of the UW voice and opera program.

To her considerable credit, she chose as her scheduled vehicle Reinhold Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, a rarely heard work that is quite fascinating.

Gliere uses the solo part in instrumental terms, as a vocalise, without words. The work might be described as a concerto for vowels and orchestra. It is meant to explore the sheer sound of the soprano voice, in all its possible colors.

The soloist (below) is heard in the slow first movement blending into a handsomely melodious Late Romantic orchestral sound, while the second movement tests a coloratura’s virtuosity in suggesting meaning through inflection rather than words.

Brenda Rae in Gliere

It is an extraordinary work, both lovely and clever, and too few sopranos have opportunities to try it out. Inevitably, though, there was the big-hit opera aria as an encore, no less than Violetta’s grand effusions in Act One of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Brenda Rae (below) sang it as a true diva, to tonal and dramatic perfection. But it also served to point up the kind of operatic style that Gliere was suggesting, and affectionately spoofing, in his concerto.

Brenda Rae in Verdi

There was far more than just vocal display to this concert, however.

The opening item was no less than Claude Debussy’s challenging tone poem La Mer. The work calls for both skilled playing and artful leadership. Conductor James Smith gave another demonstration of his capacity to draw wonders from his student players — unfolding and blending the kaleidoscope of instrumental colors that Debussy manipulates variously in each of the three movements.

UW Symphony violins 2015

Though some of the audience (mostly students, I think) walked out at the intermission — more interested in performers than in music, I fear — the bulk of the audience that remained was treated to another of maestro Smith’s wonders, if not miracles. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last completed work, is a fiercely difficult and draining affair.

Smith and his students sounded like confident pros in a probing, powerful performance of this piece, one of the truly great orchestral scores of the 20th century. I think this performance will be found to stand up well against impending competition, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays the same work in its October program. (Don’t miss that!)

UW Symphony cellos 2015

Here we have “Madison’s third orchestra” – the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra being the other two — making a blazing trail of its own in the direct wake this past weekend of the MSO’s own magnificent September concerts.

Oh, how blessed musically is Madison for those who take the trouble to benefit from it all!

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