The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: A FREE recital by the Del Sol string quartet on Monday night honors pioneering composer Ben Johnston

May 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been asked to post the following announcement:

The San Francisco-based ensemble the Del Sol Quartet will give a FREE public recital on Monday night, May 21, in Madison in honor of pioneer composer, teacher and mentor Ben Johnston (below).

For more information about the composer, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Johnston_(composer)

The recital is on the occasion of Johnston’s upcoming induction into the American Academy of Arts and Lettershttps://artsandletters.org/pressrelease/2018-newly-elected-members/

This FREE performance will be held in the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Monday night at 7 p.m.

The program will feature Johnston’s two most popular string quartets: the Fourth Quartet (based on the beloved theme “Amazing Grace”); and the Tenth Quartet (also based on a popular folk melody). In addition there will be works by some of Johnston’s contemporaries. (You can hear the Fourth Quartet of Ben Johnston in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Johnston, 92, has made his home in the Madison area for the past 11 years, where he continues to advance the field of microtonal music composition and performance, most notably initiated in the U.S. by music legend Harry Partch, with whom Johnston studied for several years. Partch’s seminal work, “Genesis of Music,” was first published in Madison by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1949.

Winner of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Johnston spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He had a significant role in some of the Contemporary Arts Festivals, which were annual events in the 1960s. His service, as composition teacher and mentor there, led to an honorary doctorate from that institution. He is also the author of “Maximum Clarity,” published by the University of Illinois Press.

Hailed by New York Times critic Mark Swed as “probably [America‘s] most subversive composer …able to make both radical thinking and avant-garde techniques sound invariably gracious,”Johnston’s diligent dedication recently resulted in the release of the third CD by the Milwaukee-based Kepler Quartet https://www.keplerquartet.com/ on the New World Music label https://www.newworldmusic.com/

The three CD series encompasses all of Johnston’s string quartets and took 14 years of painstaking collaboration to bring to fruition, receiving high acclaim internationally. Johnston has been well-known in experimental music circles since his second quartet came out on Nonesuch Records in 1969.

Hailed by Gramophone as “masters of all musical things they survey” and two-time winner of the top Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the Del Sol String Quartet shares living music with an ever-growing community of adventurous listeners.

Del Sol (below) was founded in 1992 at Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and is recognized as a “vigorous champion of living composers,” focusing on music that reflects the cultural diversity of the community, advocating works by both world-renowned and emerging composers, and collaborating across disciplines. Del Sol has commissioned and premiered over 100 works by a diverse range of composers.

The Quartet has performed on prominent concert series nationwide, including the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, Symphony Space, Cabrillo Festival, Other Minds Festival, and Santa Fe Opera.

The quartet conducts an active educational program in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to regular residencies at universities and music schools across the country.”

For more information, go to: http://delsolquartet.com/


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players close out their season with great performances of great piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 30, 2018
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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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday evening at the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season with a superlative program offering two of the greatest trios for piano and strings.

The players this time (below) were violinist Wes Luke and cellist Kyle Price, together with the group’s guiding spirit, pianist Jess Salek.

The first of the two works was the grand Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is an expansive work, full of bold ideas and adventurous spirit, while demanding much of its players.

Of its four movements, the flanking ones are full of exuberance. The scherzo has double trios or mid-sections, and is full of tricks. The third movement is a noble set of variations on a broad, hymn-like theme. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The second work, following an intermission, was the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Though composed and published very early in his output, it was revised by the composer into a distinctly new version some 35 years later. It thus offers the passion of youthfulness as tempered and given better focus by age and experience.

Also cast in four movements, it is infused with full-blooded melody, especially in the first one, but the whole piece is worked out in a richness of texture typical of the composer.

Each of the two works was given a performance of unrestricted commitment and power, in the process demonstrating the contrasts in their styles. Each was introduced by violinist Luke (below), whose comments spoke to the works and their history but also to his own feelings about them.

This in fact pointed up the degree of personal involvement these performances conveyed. It was as if the three musicians were playing as much for their own delight as for the audience’s.

That quality illustrated why this Mosaic series of programs has been so very satisfying. This is chamber music playing of the highest quality and character, some of the very best to be had in Madison.

The more reason for these Mosaic concerts to be publicized widely and broadly supported by our musical public. Few cities in our country could offer better.


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