The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear the all-Russian program by violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here are two very positive reviews and a more critical one

October 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, is your last chance to hear the highly praised all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), conducted by music director John DeMain.

The  guest soloist is the critically acclaimed, virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) from Chicago.

For more details about the program, the performers, program notes and tickets, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/classical-music-this-weekend-guest-violinist-rachel-barton-pine-solos-in-an-all-russian-program-of-khachaturian-prokofiev-and-shostakovich-by-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

The concert features the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Aram Khachaturian; the “Lieutenant Kijé Suite” film score by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

From the previews, the thematic program – all works were composed in the Soviet Union under the threatening shadow of the terrorist-dictator Josef Stalin (below) — sounded promising.

And it turns out that that the promise was, to varying degrees, fulfilled.

Here are two very positive reviews of the concert.

The first is by Michael Muckian (below), who has taken over reviewing duties at Isthmus for the now retired critic John W. Barker: https://isthmus.com/music/wildrussianride/

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below): https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2019/10/19/madison-symphony-triumphs-over-the-soviets/

And here is a somewhat more critical review by UW-Madison music graduate Matt Ambrosio (below) written for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/review-rachel-barton-pine-gives-memorable-performance-with-the-mso/article_61f34b8d-8dd8-514d-8e75-576a47826a04.html

What did you think of the programs, the performers and the performance?

Which critic do you most agree with?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – Ernest Bloch’s Nocturne No. 2 for piano trio

August 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Suddenly, in August, you sense fall coming.

The Ear has noticed how the sun is setting sooner and rising later.

And it brought to mind a wonderful performance of a memorable and moving work he heard a couple of weeks ago at the last concert by The Willy Street Chamber Players with University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below).

In fact, the group says the program – which also included Jessie Montgomery’s “Voodoo Dolls” and the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major by Antonin Dvorak – drew a record-setting audience for the group that marked its fifth anniversary this July.

The piece of music in question is the Nocturne No. 2 – the slow and most quiet one — from Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio by Ernest Bloch (below).

It sounds right and feels right with the right touch of autumnal bittersweetness to the evocation of darkness.

Listen for yourself on YouTube (below) and let The Ear know if you like it and agree:


Classical music: Here are the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition held Friday night before a record audience

June 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Co-founders Orange and Dean Schroeder have sent the following announcement about the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition that was held Friday night in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition was a joyous evening of arias! We had a record audience — we don’t have the final numbers yet, but we ran out of 240 printed ballots and figure there were 250 to 300 people present — despite a widespread power outage on the near west side and severe parking challenges.

The winners, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, were: Australian soprano Morgan Balfour, first prize (below center, in a photo by Tom Miller); soprano Emily Yocum Black, second prize (below right); and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody, third prize and audience favorite (below left).

We are excited to know that Morgan will be singing in St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, next spring thanks to the London Handel Festival. In addition, she will receive $1,500 in cash and – like all finalists — $500 toward travel costs for competing. Other awards were $1,000 for second place, $750 for third place and $500 for Audience Favorite.

Here are the arias, from opera and oratorios, sung by the three winners:

Morgan Balfour: “Spietati, io vi giurai” from “Rodelinda” and “Mean as he was, he is my brother now … Author of Peace” from “Saul”

Emily Yocum Black: “Art thou not Zaphnath? … Prophetic raptures swell my breast” from “Joseph and His Brethren” and “Credete al mio dolore” from “Alcina.”

Jonathan Woody: “Oh memory, still bitter to my soul! … Opprest with never-ceasing grief” from “Belshazzar” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” from “Messiah.”

Schroeder says: “The seven finalists (below in a photo by Tom Miller) were all excellent, presenting a real challenge for audience members picking their favorite as well as for the judges.” (For names and more biographical information about the finalists and judges, go to https://handelariacompetition.com

Adds Schroeder: “The caliber of applicants gets better and better every year. This year everybody was amazing and one of the judges said he was blown away by the quality of the competition. Yet we still try to make the sure that the competition is friendly and most collegial, not cutthroat.”

All the performances from all the finalists as well as the winners were video recorded and, after they are processed, will be posted on YouTube in about a month. (The Ear will let you know when they are available.)

You can also see and hear most of the finalists from the past six years on YouTube now; and more information about the past six years of the competition is on its home website at https://handelariacompetition.com/past-competitions

Did you go to the competition?

Did you agree with the judges about the winners and the Audience Award?

What did you think of the annual competition?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The 7th annual Handel Aria Competition, which has grown in international stature and ties, will take place this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. Here are the 7 finalists and more information

June 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The final round of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will be held on this Friday night, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Below is soprano Suzanne Karpov, the winner last year. You can hear her prize-winning performance in the YouTube video at the bottom. To whet your appetite, you can also find many other outstanding competition performances from past years on YouTube.)

As in recent years, the accompaniment will be provided by the Madison Bach Musicians (below), a period instrument Baroque music ensemble under the direction of harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson that uses historically informed performance practices.

Tickets will be $15 each for general admission, and will be available at the door.

The seven finalists were chosen from a field of 100 singers from five countries.

Three prizes are awarded by the guest judges, and the audience also gets to award its own prize — which doesn’t always agree with the judges.

The finalists are (below, from the upper left):

  • Emily Yocum Black, soprano
  • Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone
  • Katherine Cecelia Peck, soprano
  • Scott J. Brunscheen, tenor
  • Sarah Moyer, soprano
  • Morgan Balfour, soprano
  • Ryne Cherry, baritone

To read extensive biographies about each of these singers, go to the competition’s home website.

There is other important news to announce. The competition has a new director, Wisconsin native Sarah Brailey (below), a soprano who is pursuing graduate work at the UW-Madison while maintaining a busy concert schedule and blossoming career. She is also a co-founder of the free monthly Just Bach midday concerts that started this past season.

Read her biography and be impressed: https://sarahbrailey.com/about/

This year also saw the competition foster music education with its first showcase concert by high school singers performing Handel arias at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community near the Capitol Square.

Finally, an international link has been established.

There is a new cooperative initiative with the esteemed London Handel Festival! The first prize winner of this year’s Handel Aria Competition will be invited to give a lunchtime recital in London at Handel’s own parish church, St. George’s in Hanover Square, next spring. (It is contingent, of course, on being able to coordinate the singer’s schedule with that of the London Handel Festival.)

The winner will receive a travel grant of up to $750, and the London Handel Festival will provide a home stay, professional accompaniment and even a small stipend.

The Handel Festival in London, now in its 18th year, was one of the inspirations in starting the Handel Aria Competition in the U.S.


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