The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival’s 20th anniversary Grand Tour includes a silent movie and rare books as well as lots of varied music to mark its success after 20 years. Part 2 of 2

July 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is marking its 20th year, have come up with.

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF:

Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass. Individual concerts are $22, $12 for students. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee; or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A for this blog. Yesterday she spoke about the overall concept and the first weekend’s concerts. Here is a link to Part 1:

Here is Part 2 of 2:

What events take place next week?

The concert on Tuesday, July 9, is going to be a unique experience for MEMF audiences. HESPERUS creates the soundtrack for the 1923 silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with music (below) from 14th- and 15th-century France. (The cathedral was started in 1163 and finished in 1345.)

Compositions include French and Burgundian music from 1300 to 1500, featuring Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, as well as lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton and Borlet.

On Friday, July 12, the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) performs “Faith and Madness,” a program of a dialogue between sacred music masterpieces followed by madrigals that portray madness, love, war and loneliness.

Composers include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo, Clement Janequin and others.

All of the singers are graduates of Leipzig’s renowned St. Thomas Church Choir School. Calmus was founded in 1999. This a cappella quintet embodies the rich choral tradition of its hometown, the city associated with Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.

To hear a preview of their arrangement of Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, visit:

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 13?

The All-Festival Concert includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project. Grant Herreid (below) has created the All-Festival program this year. Grant is a genius at designing a program that tells a musical story featuring MEMF’s faculty and participants.

“Musical Postcards from The Grand Tour” features a narrator, loosely based on Thomas Coryat (below, at sea and in the Alps), the English 17th-century century travel writer, who, as a young man, travels throughout Europe in search of music. Beginning in London, 1641, the musical itinerary continues to Venice, Rome, Naples, Dresden, Paris, and back to London.

The program features so many wonderful composers, and the large ensemble pieces are: the Gloria from Monteverdi’s Selva morale et spirituale; the beautiful Miserere of Gregorio Allegri; Nun danket alle Gott by Heinrich Schütz; Domine salvum fac regem setting by Jean-Baptiste Lully; and, as an ending, This point in time ends all your grief from Ye tuneful muses by Henry Purcell.

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything! The concert series, lectures and workshops have so much to offer.

The special moments that I’m looking forward to are singing in the All-Festival concert and performing Allegri’s  Miserere,a stunning piece that I have never heard performed in Madison. (You can hear it in there YouTube video at the bottom.)

I also look forward to hearing the fantastic musical soundtrack created by HESPERUS for the silent movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Calmus singing connection back to Bach through their musical education in Leipzig, plus experiencing all the different travelogues of the past as they come to life through narrations and music.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Grand Tour Dance Excursions, at the Memorial Union in the Great Hall on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 pm.

The lecture series features some well-known Madisonians like J. Michael Allsen (below top), who writes program notes and lectures for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Maria Saffiotti Dale (below bottom), curator at the Chazen Museum of Art.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library. This curated display includes materials about the Grand Tour, including one of the oldest travelogues from 1611 written by Thomas Coryat.

The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library (below) and open to the public from Saturday, July 6, through Thursday, July 18, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 8, at 11:30 a.m.

This partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the author of the travelogue Crudities foretold what you will hear at MEMF in 2019:

“…I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life…so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like…the Musicke which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like”.

Get your tickets for the concert series. Attend the lectures. Take some classes. See a movie. Come and dance with us. Join us to experience the ultimate musical gap year at our 20th anniversary celebration!

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Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with guest conductor Carl St. Clair and trumpet virtuoso Tina Thing Helseth, performs music by Beethoven, Hummel and Richard Strauss

March 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) features Tine Thing Helseth (below), the Norwegian virtuoso trumpet soloist, for a special performance of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto.

Conductor Carl St. Clair (below) returns for a third visit as guest conductor with the MSO to lead a pair of early 19th-century works with 112 musicians performing the largest of Richard Strauss’s symphonic tone poems. (MSO music director and conductor John DeMain is conducting a production of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in Virginia.)

The program begins with the Egmont Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven, followed by the MSO’s premiere performance of the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, featuring HelsethThe concert ends with a nod to the awesome splendor of the Bavarian Alps, “An Alpine Symphony,” by Richard Strauss.

The concerts are this weekend on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street. See below for ticket information.

Beethoven (below top) composed his Egmont Overture in 1810. Both Beethoven himself, and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (below bottom) upheld the ideals of human dignity and freedom in their works.

Their personal relationship stemmed from Beethoven’s incidental music for a new production of Goethe’s play Egmont in 1810. This play about a nobleman’s betrayal by the Spanish monarchy, is beautifully paired with Beethoven’s music. As Goethe called it, Egmont Overture is a “Symphony of Victory.” (You can hear the dramatic “Egmont” Overture, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Another friend of Beethoven’s, was Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below). Even though they were rivals, their respect for each other’s talent kept the relationship afloat.

Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto is a frisky fanfare with “playful dancelike” episodes laced throughout. This is the first time Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto will be performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss (below top) composed his Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”) from 1911-15. The final score used materials from some of his unfinished works, including an Artist’s Tragedy and The Alps.

Though there are many influences for this piece, the main is Strauss’s love for the Bavarian Alps. In his diary he wrote: “I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Antichrist is a reference to an essay by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (below bottom), and though the title was dropped for its publication, the work still carries many of Nietzsche’s ideals.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the author of MSO program notes and an MSO trombonist as well as a UW-Whitewater Professor of Music, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please visit the Program Notes at:

Single Tickets are $16 to $87 each, available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit

Club 201, MSO’s organization for young professionals, has continued to fulfill its mission for the past 11 years as the premiere organization promoting classical music and networking opportunities to the young professionals’ community in Madison. Tickets are $35 each and include world-class seating in Overture Hall, an exclusive after-party to be held in the Promenade Lounge, one drink ticket and a cash bar.

The conductor as well as musicians from the symphony may also be in attendance to mingle with Madison’s young professionals during the after-party.

The deadline to purchase tickets is Thursday, March 9, pending availability. Tickets can be purchased for this event, as well as the other events throughout the 2016-17 season by visiting the Club 201 page on the MSO’s website at

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the March concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, An Anonymous Friend, and Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, Inc. Additional funding is provided by: Audrey Dybdahl, Family and Friends, in loving memory of Philip G. Dybdahl, John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Madison Veterinary Specialists, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Classical music: See what goes into making a Stradivarius violin great, from the special Italian spruce trees to the master violin-makers who come to Cremona, Italy from around the world. But are the old violins really better than the best new ones?

December 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Ever wonder what goes into a great violin made centuries ago by Stradivarius or Guarneri or Amati that makes them the favorite instruments of great performing virtuosos?

Stradivarius violin

(The Ear will forget for a while the stories about how blind hearing tests with professional violinists showed that new or modern instruments outscored the centuries-old masterpieces.)

For whatever reason last weekend brought two terrific stories about what goes into making world-class violins – in specific the violins, worth millions of dollars, by Antonio Stradivari (below) and other master crafters and luthiers in Cremona, Italy.

Antonio Stradivari

The stories followed the great violins — and also violas and cellos — from the special Italian spruce trees grown in the dolomite Alps, which are celebrated and serenaded with music, to the actual makers of the instruments and the overall cooperative music culture of Cremona, Italy.

Serenading spruce trees

One of the stories appeared on NPR (National Public Radio) , specifically on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Here is a link:

The other was a great segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” It has great visuals and interviews. Here is a link:

And at bottom in a YouTube video, is a comparison test of old and new violin sounds. Listen to it, take it and see how you do.

What do you think of the comparison results?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: What makes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 so great? French pianist Philippe Bianconi discusses his upcoming performances of it this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Plus, the memorial performances for singer Ilona Kombrink are this Sunday afternoon.

October 15, 2013

ALERT and REMINDER: Ilona Kombrink (below), UW Emeritus Professor of Voice, passed away on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, at the age of 80. A Memorial Concert and celebration of Ilona’s life will be held on this Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 3 p.m. in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, Madison. The public is invited with no formal reservations necessary.

A member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison voice faculty from 1967-2003, “Ms. K” counted among her students hundreds of singers and teachers working all over the world today. She performed frequently in her own recitals and collaborated often with many of her UW faculty colleagues on and off-campus. She was beloved in the wider Madison community for her uncompromising vocal artistry, and was featured in appearances with Madison Opera, Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Capitol City Band, and others.

Among the performers will be former students: Kathleen Otterson (Edgewood College), Margaret (Peggy) Walters, and Daniel Johnson-Wilmot (Viterbo University); UW colleagues: Professor Howard Karp (piano) and Professor Parry Karp (‘cello); Professor Karlos Moser (opera); and Professor Tyrone Greive (violin). Participating pianists include Michael Keller, Bruce Bengtson, Michael Ross, Janet Smith, and Melinda Moser. UW Professor Mimmi Fulmer, former student Marcia Roberts McCoy, and Professor James Latimer will offer remembrances. A reception will follow in the Capitol Lakes Encore Room.

Ilona Kombrink color

By Jacob Stockinger

French pianist Philippe Bianconi (below), a favorite of Madison audiences, returns this weekend for three performances, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, of the towering Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 82, by Johannes Brahms.


The program also includes Claude Debussy’s famous tone poem “La Mer” and Benjamin Britten’s “Variation and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell,” which the composer also used in the popular “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” (that will be performed at the MSO’s fall school concerts) and which will mark the centennial of the composer’s birth.

Performances, under the baton of MSO music director John DeMain, are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday; 8 p.m. on Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets are $13.50-$82.50. For more information, visit:

For program notes by J, Michael Allsen, who plays trombone in the orchestra, visit:

For more about Philippe Bianconi, who was born in Nice in 1960 and is the new director of the famed American Conservatory in France, visit:

To The Ear, Bianconi – who won a silver medal in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1985 – is a rare find: an outstanding virtuoso pianist who is also a poetic and complete musician in almost any repertoire, not just French music. I find his Rachmaninoff Rhapsody as convincing as his Debussy Preludes.

Bianconi (below) recently agreed to an email interview:


How do you rate the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 among the other standard or popular concertos in the repertoire and in your own preferences?

I am not so sure that the Brahms Second Piano Concerto belongs to the most standard repertoire or to the most popular concertos, but it is certainly considered one of the great masterpieces of the kind.

In my own preferences, it stays at the very top. As a matter of fact, if I were pressed to choose one piano concerto for a desert island, my choice would be Brahms second. (Of course, I’d be devastated to leave behind a number of other great concertos!)

What makes it do great or special for you? What role has it played in your career? Do you play a lot of other Brahms and what do you like about Brahms?

There are many reasons that make it so special in my own pantheon, but the main one will seem a little odd: to me this concerto is not really a concerto – it is really a symphony with principal piano.

It has four movements, like a symphony, and everything about it — the structure, the texture, the way the piano is integrated into the orchestral fabric i– s very symphonic. And that is what I love about it: I have the feeling I’m playing in a Brahms symphony !


I don’t think it has played a particular role in my career, but every time I had the opportunity to play this piece was a great moment of happiness.

The sheer beauty of this music is simply overwhelming. And I don’t know many concertos that have such a great range of moods and emotions.

There is such grandeur and majesty in the first movement, it’s like climbing a mountain in the Alps, and when you get to the top, you discover a panorama of breathtaking beauty. Then there is the dark and violent passion burning in the second movement.

Then comes the sublime slow movement with the unforgettable solo of the cello that brings tears to my eyes every time. And finally, the lightness, the grace, the spirit of the last movement, in great contrast with the other movements, in the pure tradition of Haydn, even with the gypsy touch of the second theme.

This concerto is like a fabulous journey.

I have played a lot of other music by Brahms (below), including most of the chamber music with piano, and among the music for solo piano, I have a deep love for his late cycles. To me, Brahms is a true romantic at heart. He explores such a variety of feelings: passion, lyricism, dreamy intimacy, stormy conflicts, and it is all molded in classical form, and that is what gives his music such emotional power.


I know that one very well-known pianist said he had to perform it more than 200 times live before recording it. What makes the Brahms Second so challenging? Technical difficulties? Interpretive difficulties? What would you like the audience to listen for in your performance?

This concerto is very challenging for many reasons.

It is very long, between 45 and 50 minutes depending on the tempi chosen. It requires great strength, especially in the first two movements. Of course you must find a natural and relaxed strength in order to maintain a large, singing tone all the time. If you force or bang, the sound becomes ugly and it’s just unbearable.

The technical difficulties are numerous: the horrendous chords and jumps, the runs in double notes. There are also very “un-pianistic” things too. Because the piano is really part of the orchestra, and conceived in orchestral terms, in “coloristic” terms, and in relationship with the other instruments, certain things are technically very strange and awkward. Alfred Brendel (below) used to talk about the “pianistic perversions” of Brahms’ Second Concerto.

Then of course, the interpretative challenge is great too, and also because of the integration of the piano in the orchestra. You cannot think as a “soloist” when you play it. From beginning to end, you must have in mind the structure of the whole piece and the full orchestral texture, even in the solo passages. As a matter of fact, the collaboration with the conductor is absolutely crucial in this piece.

Brendel playing BIG

You have become a favorite pianist of Madison audiences and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and conductor John DeMain? How do you feel about the city and its audiences as well as about the orchestra?

I am so happy to come back to Madison. It’s a beautiful, lively city, and I love coming here. And I love the audience too. They are always so warm and enthusiastic.

I have played a number of times with the Madison Symphony and John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), and every time has been a great musical and human experience. I feel a little bit like I’m coming back home to my family.

As I said, when you play Brahms Second, collaborating with the conductor is very important, so you can imagine how I look forward to performing it with John DeMain. I know it’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life with this piece.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What are your current projects and plans for concert performances, recordings, etc.?

In the next few months, I have some recitals planned in Europe, and in February I will be back in the States for a series of concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic and Joann Falletta, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in Buffalo and then on tour in Florida. Then I will be playing the Grieg Concerto in Santa Rosa, California, with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Bruno Ferrandis. It will be a great month of February for me.!

Last week, I recorded my first Chopin CD, which should be released in 2014. It’s with the same label (La Dolce Volta) I recorded the complete Debussy preludes (below, in a YouTube video) last year. It’s a new and energetic label and I’m really happy to work with them.

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