The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

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 hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.


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