The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Mary Mackenzie, a former Madisonian now singing in New York City is seeking help to finance the first recording of composer John Harbison’s “Songs After Hours.”

January 6, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Mary Mackenzie (below), a very accomplished singer, a friend of the blog and a former Madison resident, writes:

mary mackenzie

Dear Mr. Stockinger,

It has been quite a while since you saw me perform — I suspect it may have been “Brundibar” with Madison Opera in 2000! — but I always enjoy keeping up with your blog about all things musical in Madison.

I was last in Madison in August, and gave a recital at the Token Creek Music Festival (below, and art bottom in a YouTube video). Returning home to Madison to share my life-long love of song with family and friends is always a treat for me.

TokenCreekbarn interior

I was fortunate to have an extensive musical education in Madison. I was involved in the music programs at West High School, WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the Madison Opera, and I was able to see my mother play almost every week, either with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or the Oakwood Chamber Players.

I went on to receive a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and later moved to New York City, where I received a Master of Music in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

I made my Carnegie Hall debut in the Stern Auditorium in November with the American Symphony Orchestra, singing “Warble for Lilac Time” by Elliott Carter (bel0w).

Elliott Carter

My eight years in New York City have been rich with a busy and varied singing career. I have made a name for myself as an interpreter of contemporary music – particularly art song and chamber music – and have worked with many prestigious living composers. (Below is Mary Mackenzie performing Harrison Birtwistle’s “Three Settings of Celan” with the Juilliard School’s Axiom Ensemble in a photo by The New York Times). It is one piece in particular, and the relationship I forged with the composer  John Harbison that has resonated with me.

Mary Mackenzie ii in Harrison Birtwistle's %22Thee Settings of Celan%22 with the Juilliard School's Axiom Ensemble NYT

I am writing to tell you a bit about the jazz songs, Songs After Hours, by John Harbison (below) and a unique new artistic endeavor of mine, which includes creating the first-ever recording of these works. It is my hope that you will see the value in this project, and consider supporting its production.

JohnHarbisonatpiano

Five years ago, I performed John’s Songs After Hours at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Though scored only for piano and voice at the time, John mentioned his wish to see the music developed further for a jazz combo.

Fast forward to 2012, when I had an opportunity to work with some of the most exceptional jazz musicians in New York City. Through their artistry and creativity, I knew that I’d found the group to realize John’s vision. We created original arrangements of the songs for voice and combo and are going into the studio soon to make the debut recording in 2014. The album will ultimately be released by Albany Records.

There are many financial obligations involved in making a record, and while I am applying for grant funding and running a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter, I am looking for outside donors as well.  In particular, I would like to find donors to sponsor each of the five musicians involved in the project. (Below is a photo of Mary Mackenzie performing Hector Parra’s “Hypermusic — Ascension” at the Guggenheim Museum.)

Mary Mackenzie in Hector Parra %22Hypermusic -- Ascension%22 at the Guggenheim Museum

As for the Kickstarter, the deadline is January 17, so not that far away. The link for the page is:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1472615144/the-john-harbison-project-songs-after-hours-debut.

The goal of the Kickstarter is to raise $10,000, which would go towards studio costs, engineering, mixing, and mastering.  Of course, if we exceed our goal, then that’s more money towards the overall budget. I am hoping that I can find some donors that are separate from the Kickstarter to help sponsor the musicians.

I will be applying for a grant through the Aaron Copland Fund for the remainder of the funds.

I have some of the best jazz musicians accompanying me on this project, and I believe they deserve to be compensated with at least $1,500 for their work on this record. Ideally, I’d like to give them more if funding allows. This totals at least $7,500 for five musicians.

I am hoping Madisonians will consider supporting this record.  Of course, any amount anyone can give would be a great help, perhaps even a sponsorship of one of the musicians. You and others can contact me at mmackenzie981@gmail.com or at www.mary-mackenzie.com or call me at (608) 215-9261.

Sincerely,

Mary Mackenzie


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet opens its new and very busy season this week with two FREE concerts of music by Mozart, Milhaud, Fritz Kreisler and Brahms plus a taping for Wisconsin Public Television.

September 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Pro Arte String Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) – which became the world’s first artists-in-residence in the world when they agreed to stay at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1940 — kicks off its new season with two FREE concerts this week and much more this fall.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

On Sunday, the Pro Arte Quartet returns to “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in a live broadcast over Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Pro Arte – which celebrated its historically unprecedented centennial two seasons ago — will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Prussia” String Quartet in D Major, K 575, Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7 and the rarely heard Quartet in A Minor by the Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler who is best known for his miniature works, transcriptions and pastiches.

fritz kreisler

Then at 7:30 p.m. on next Thursday, Oct. 3 in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte will perform a FREE and MUST-HEAR concert in Mills Hall. It will perform the same Mozart and Kreisler quartets as above, but the Milhaud will be replaced by the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 51, No. 1, by Johannes Brahms.

brahms3

Also, stay tuned for word about an airing date for the program that the Pro Arte is recording this coming Monday night for Wisconsin Public Television.

The by-invitation-only TV concert has a program that features a prelude by Ernest Bloch (at bottom in a YouTube video) and the famous “Adagio for Strings” quartet movement – later transcribed for string orchestra at the request of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini (below top)  — by Samuel Barber (below bottom).

Many people forget that the Pro Arte Quartet gave the world premiere of the famous “Adagio for Strings” — the slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 —  in Rome in 1936.

Toscanini Conducts

barber 1

Also watch for news this fall of an Albany Records CD release — with a local release party — of the four commissions (two string quartets and two piano quintets)– that the Pro Arte Quartet commissioned for its centennial two seasons ago. The CD was engineered by the multiple Grammy Award-winner Judith Sherman (below).

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

The two string quartets were composed from Walter Mays (below top) and John Harbison (below bottom), who is also the co-director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Walter Mays mug

JohnHarbisonatpiano

The two piano quintets were composed by Paul Schoenfield (below top) and William Bolcom (below middle) and featured the celebrated UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below bottom).

Paul Schoenfield BW klezmerish

William Bolcom gesturing.

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

Then at its FREE concert in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, the Pro Arte will give the world premiere of its fifth centennial commission: a String Quartet by the contemporary Belgian composer Benoit Mernier (below). The Pro Arte originally started, you may recall, at the conservatory in Brussels.

Benoit Mernier 1

And finally, next May, the Pro Arte Quartet travels to Europe – to its home city of Brussels, Belgium, as well as London and maybe Paris – to perform works from its centennial commissions.

And there is still more to come, including a book about the Pro Arte Quartet by the retired UW-Madison historian turned music critic and guest writer for Isthmus and for this blog John W. Barker (below).

John-Barker

 


Classical music: The Pacifica Quartet’s third volume of “The Soviet Experience” and Dmitri Shostakovich string quartets is yet another MUST-HEAR and MUST-BUY recording from this top-notch Midwestern chamber music group.

August 1, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are so many reasons to like the third 2-CD installment of a projected four volumes of “The Soviet Experience,” (below) performed by the Pacifica String Quartet and recorded by the non-profit Cedille Records that is based in Chicago and specializes in regional artists.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Vol 3

I suppose one has to start with the music and the performances.

Suffice it to say that I have never heard the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (below) performed with such appeal and subtlety as by this group. These performances grab and hold your attention as much as the music does. (See the YouTube video at bottom with a member of the Pacifica explaining the appeal of Shostakovich.)

dmitri shostakovich

Yes, I much admire and often listen to the Grammy-winning set by the Emerson String Quartet. And I also like the softer readings by the St. Petersburg Quartet. But there is something special about these performances from the Pacifica Quartet (below).

pacifica quartet

For one, I find the Pacifica projects a lot of subtlety, flexibility and nuances, and also emphasizes a certain a traditional Russian sound or musicality that extended right into Soviet music.

That is, the Pacifica Quartet – the members are now artists-in-residence at the famed Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University — has been acclaimed for its compete Mendelssohn quartet cycle and for a terrific turn-of-the century recital (“Declarations,” below) of music by Leos Janacek, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Paul Hindemith.

pacifica quartet %22declarations%22 CD

Most of that music is much less dark than Shostakovich’s. But the members of the Pacifica Quartet can be as modern, spiky and aggressive as Shostakovich’s music demands; yet the quartet also knows when to interject a contrasting lyricism that can be traced back to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

I am especially partial to this latest release. The third volume has my favorite Shostakovich quartet – No. 14 in F-sharp-minor – that is short and with seven uninterrupted movements and a cyclic structure you can easily discern.

Some listeners might prefer the first volume (below) because it has the most famous of the 16 Shostakovich quartets — No. 8 in C minor dedicated to victims of fascism, by which the composer meant both Nazi and Soviet cruelty and terror.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Experience Vol. 1

Others might prefer volume No. 2 (below) that includes some of the first big and mature quartets.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Experience 2 CD

I say get all three and also the fourth, which is supposed to be released this October and will complete the Shostakovich cycle with Quartets 13, 14 and 15 plus Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3.

But here are other reasons to like this 2-CD recording.

The packaging, art and liner notes by David Fanning are all first-rate. The timings are generally very generous.

The engineering is superb, with a sonic presence that makes it sound like the quartet is playing right in front of you. There is no reverb or resonance allowed for since your own livingroom or car interior IS the playback venue.

In fact, I am particularly fond of the engineering because the freelancer producer and engineer is Judith Sherman. She is a legend in the business for winning several Grammy awards.

Plus, Sherman (below) is the engineer for the four commissions by the University of Wiscosin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet for its centennial two seasons. They includes quartets by Walter Mays and John Harbison, and piano quintets by Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

The Pro Arte Quartet’s 2-CD centennial commission set will be released on Albany Records this fall. And Sherman has told The Ear that the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a recording session for Sherman,  who si adjusting microphones in Mills Hall) at the UW-Madison is the equal of any she has recorded and could well be nominated for a Grammy since the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences favors new contemporary works, small labels and unknown performers – all of which apply to the Pro Arte commissions.

Judith Sherman with Pro Arte

But back to the Pacifica’s Soviet CD.

It is worth recalling that Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets served roughly the same purpose at Beethoven’s cycle of 16: a workshop or laboratory to work out ideas and confide private thoughts and techniques that might be too revolutionary or unsuitable for other genres and bigger public consumption.

But I like that more than being a survey of just the Shostakovich quartets, each volume includes a quartet by as contemporary composer of Shostakovich –- Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky and Mieczslaw Weinberg. That program format helps to put a frame around the picture and show what makes Shostakovich so distinctive and original in his time and also gives a sense of that terrible time so that you can also hear what similarities he shares with his contemporaries. 

To be fair, The Ear is not alone in his praise for this recording.

The BBC Music Magazine singled out the CD for a Recording of the Month award.

Here is a link:

http://www.classical-music.com/monthly-choice/shostakovich-string-quartets

And the Telegraph newspaper of London also raved about it. Here is a link to that review, reproduced in a newsletter from Indiana University:

http://blogs.music.indiana.edu/strings/2013/06/13/pacifica-quartet-receives-rave-review-in-londons-telegraph-for-the-soviet-experience-vol-3-cd/

When that many discerning a critics agree, you can be pretty sure that this is a recording that is a must-have and must-hear.


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