The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann

September 6, 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. 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 third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.

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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 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.

By John W. Barker

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 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. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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Classical music: The new period-instrument group Sonata à Quattro makes its debut and excels in early Baroque music

July 13, 2018
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ALERT: The All-Festival Concert that closes this summer’s 19th annual Madison Early Musical Festival will take place in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for the general public, $10 for seniors and students. Here are two links where you can find more specific information, including composers and works on the program:

https://memf.wisc.edu/event/all-fest-2018/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-2/

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

Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) is becoming another powerhouse in our musical scene. Already a spark plug of the Ancora String Quartet, and now the director of the annual “Bach Around the Clock” bashes, she has organized a new ensemble, Sonata à Quattro, which made its debut on Wednesday night at Pres House.

This was done under the aegis of the current Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) as a “fringe concert” — in the manner long-established by the Boston Early Music Festival. Plus, the concert’s theme was “The Lübeck Connection,” clearly tying it to the MEMF.

The music was early Baroque, almost entirely from the 17th century.

The first half presented pieces by seven composers, including, among the better-known ones, Michael Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz, Heinrich Ignaz Biber and Antonio Vivaldi.

In the earlier pieces, the instruments were not originally specified at all — and one of them was in fact purely vocal. But the later ones clearly displayed the definition of the early string ensemble.

Indeed, the basic players — besides the backup harpsichord — were seated (below) in what is now familiar in the configuration of the latter-day string quartet, with the subtle suggestion that the earlier sonata à quattro genre was its natural predecessor.

The presence here of Vivaldi—besides Gabrieli, the only Italian among these Germans, and of later date—seemed a bit incongruous, but his familiar Sinfonia ‘al Santo Sepolcro’ actually illustrated well the mature à quattro texture. (You can hear the Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And a most impressive conclusion for this first half of the program was the fascinating eight-part Sonata in A minor by the sadly neglected Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665)—its eight-voice scoring not serving as a double choir but as a richly textured study in contrasting high with low parts.

For this first half, the core performers were Nathan Giglierano and Christine Hauptly Annin, violins; Fischer-Hoyt, viola; and Charlie Rasmussen, cello, with harpsichordist Daniel Sullivan.

They were joined along the way by gambist Phillip Serna (below top) who performed later on violone; and, for the Capricornus also violinist Thalia Coombs (below second), violist Micah Behr (below third) and viola da gambist Eric Miller (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The program’s second half was devoted entirely to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (below, ca. 1637-1707), the big star of the MEMF constellation.

First we had a Trio in B-flat from his Op. 2 collection, then a slightly French-style solo harpsichord Suite in D minor from Daniel Sullivan (below top).

Finally, we had two solo cantatas, sung by Kristin Knutson (below bottom), whose lovely soprano voice blended beautifully with the instruments.

This new ensemble will continue with concerts scheduled ahead for the coming season. But certainly this appearance represents a beautiful, and perfectly timed, introduction in a concert of true delight.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 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. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 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 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 season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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