The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu_Lupu

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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Classical music: Famed radio station WQXR names the best 100 recordings of 2019. Listen to samples of them here

December 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Did you get a gift card for the holidays?

Are you looking how to spend it by either purchasing CDs or subscribing to a streaming service?

Help and guidance are available.

Few names in the airing of classical music carry more prestige than the famed radio station WQXR in New York City.

To check out the radio station’s choice of the best recordings of 2019 is also to see where the worlds of recording and concertizing are heading.

Such trends include rediscovering neglected composers and championing new music as well as women composers, such as Clara Schumann, and composers of color, such as the American composer Florence Price (below), who has often been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio this past year.

But you will also find noteworthy recordings of such classics as Johann Sebastian Bach – and two of his rarely heard cousins instead of his sons – and well as outstanding recordings of symphonies and piano sonatas (below, the set by Igor Levit) for the upcoming Beethoven Year to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer.

And you will also find names of outstanding performers you may not have heard of — such as the exceptional Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang (below), a Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist whom The Ear would like to see perform here.

Here is a link to 25 picks with commentaries– plus another 75 titles and samples, without commentary, to round out a Top 100.

Happy listening!

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2019/


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Classical music: Here are the classical music nominees for the 2020 Grammy Awards. They make a useful holiday gift guide and highlight the trend toward more diversity

November 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Black Friday followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday — all with special deals and sales.

With that in mind, here is a list of the recently announced nominees in classical music for the 2020 Grammy Awards.

Although it is a self-serving list for a competition sponsored by The Industry, it can also be good way to find holiday gifts to give to others or to receive for yourself.

The list can be useful for spotting trends and finding new releases you may not have heard of.

For example, this year seems especially good for new music or recent works and contemporary composers. You won’t find any Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky or Mahler although you will find Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Berg, Rachmaninoff and Copland.

Another favorite seems to be the rediscovery of older composers such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996, below) whose centennial has become an occasion for bringing his neglected works to the forefront.

You can also see that like the Oscars, the Grammys seem to be paying more attention to women composers and conductors, artists of color and crossovers or mixed and hybrid genres.

For complete lists of all 84 categories, go to this site and click on the categories that interest you: https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/2020-grammy-awards-complete-nominees-list

The 62nd annual Grammy Awards will be presented on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be broadcast live on CBS television.

  1. Best Engineered Album, Classical
    An Engineer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • AEQUA – ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR
    Daniel Shores, engineer; Daniel Shores, mastering engineer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • RILEY: SUN RINGS
    Leslie Ann Jones, engineer; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Bob Hanlon & Lawrence Rock, engineers; Ian Good & Lawrence Rock, mastering engineers (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

  1. Producer Of The Year, Classical
    A Producer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • BLANTON ALSPAUGH
  • Artifacts – The Music Of Michael McGlynn (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
    • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Fantaisie Sur La Tempête De Shakespeare (Andrew Davis & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
    • Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
    • Duruflé: Complete Choral Works (Robert Simpson & Houston Chamber Choir)
    • Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices & Novus NY)
    • Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom (Peter Jermihov & PaTRAM Institute Singers)
    • Smith, K.: Canticle (Craig Hella Johnson & Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble)
    • Visions Take Flight (Mei-Ann Chen & ROCO)
  • JAMES GINSBURG (below)
  • Project W – Works By Diverse Women Composers (Mei-Ann Chen and Chicago Sinfonietta)
    • Silenced Voices (Black Oak Ensemble)
    • 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (Jory Vinikour, Scott Speck and Chicago Philharmonic)
    • Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas (Alex Klein and Phillip Bush)
    • Winged Creatures & Other Works For Flute, Clarinet, And Orchestra (Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill, Allen Tinkham and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra)
  • MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN
  • Bates: Children Of Adam; Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (Steven Smith, Erin R. Freeman, Richmond Symphony & Chorus)
    • The Orchestral Organ (Jan Kraybill)
    • The Poetry Of Places (Nadia Shpachenko)
    • Rachmaninoff – Hermitage Piano Trio (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • MORTEN LINDBERG
  • Himmelborgen (Elisabeth Holte, Kare Nordstoga & Uranienborg Vokalensemble)
    • Kleiberg: Do You Believe In Heather? (Various Artists)
    • Ljos (Fauna Vokalkvintett)
    • LUX (Anita Brevik, Trondheimsolistene & Nidarosdomens Jentekor)
    • Trachea (Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl & Schola Cantorum)
    • Veneliti (Hakon Daniel Nystedt & Oslo Kammerkor)
  • DIRK SOBOTKA
  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

 75. Best Orchestral Performance Award to the Conductor and to the Orchestra.

  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • COPLAND: BILLY THE KID; GROHG
    Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • TRANSATLANTIC
    Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
  • WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2 and 21
    Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

  1. Best Opera Recording
    Award to the Conductor, Album Producer(s) and Principal Soloists.
  • BENJAMIN: LESSONS IN LOVE & VIOLENCE
    George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; James Whitbourn, producer (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)
  • BERG: WOZZECK
    Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)
  • CHARPENTIER: LES ARTS FLORISSANTS; LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES
    Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
  • PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX
    Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)
  • WAGNER: LOHENGRIN
    Christian Thielemann, conductor; Piotr Beczała, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier & Georg Zeppenfeld; Eckhard Glauche, producer (Festspielorchester Bayreuth; Festspielchor Bayreuth)

  1. Best Choral Performance
    Award to the Conductor, and to the Choral Director and/or Chorus Master where applicable and to the Choral Organization/Ensemble.
  • BOYLE: VOYAGES
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
  • DURUFLÉ: COMPLETE CHORAL WORKS
    Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
  • THE HOPE OF LOVING
    Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
  • SANDER: THE DIVINE LITURGY OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
    Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
  • SMITH, K.: THE ARC IN THE SKY
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

  1. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
    For new recordings of works with chamber or small ensemble (twenty-four or fewer members, not including the conductor). One Award to the ensemble and one Award to the conductor, if applicable.
  • CERRONE: THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH
    Christopher Rountree and Wild Up
  • FREEDOM & FAITH
    PUBLIQuartet
  • PERPETULUM
    Third Coast Percussion
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Hermitage Piano Trio
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Attacca Quartet

79. Best Classical Instrumental Solo Award to the Instrumental Soloist(s) and to the Conductor when applicable.

  • THE BERLIN RECITAL
    Yuja Wang
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO; FIDDLE DANCE SUITE
    Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • THE ORCHESTRAL ORGAN
    Jan Kraybill
  • TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN
    Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

 80. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album  Award to: Vocalist(s), Collaborative Artist(s) (Ex: pianists, conductors, chamber groups) Producer(s), Recording Engineers/Mixers with 51% or more playing time of new material.

  • THE EDGE OF SILENCE – WORKS FOR VOICE BY GYÖRGY KURTÁG
    Susan Narucki (Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister & Nicholas Tolle)
  • HIMMELSMUSIK
    Philippe Jaroussky & Céline Scheen; Christina Pluhar, conductor; L’Arpeggiata, ensemble (Jesús Rodil & Dingle Yandell)
  • SCHUMANN: LIEDERKREIS OP. 24, KERNER-LIEDER OP. 35
    Matthias Goerne; Leif Ove Andsnes, accompanist
  • SONGPLAY
    Joyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter and Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett and Lautaro Greco)
  • A TE, O CARA
    Stephen Costello; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra)

  

  1. Best Classical Compendium
    Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s) and Engineer(s) of over 51% playing time of the album, if other than the artist.
  • AMERICAN ORIGINALS 1918
    John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer
  • LESHNOFF: SYMPHONY NO. 4 ‘HEICHALOS’; GUITAR CONCERTO; STARBURST
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
  • MELTZER: SONGS AND STRUCTURES
    Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers
  • THE POETRY OF PLACES
    Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
  • SAARIAHO: TRUE FIRE; TRANS; CIEL D’HIVER
    Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

  

  1. Best Contemporary Classical Composition
    A Composer’s Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.
  • BERMEL: MIGRATION SERIES FOR JAZZ ENSEMBLE & ORCHESTRA
    Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR
    Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

 


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Classical music: World-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai will teach and perform two FREE concerts with students and the Pro Arte Quartet during her UW residency today and Thursday

October 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as Viola Week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music — a chance to celebrate the gorgeous, mellow sound of a frequently but unjustly maligned instrument (below) the range of which falls between the higher violin and the lower cello.

The world-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai (below) is returning to the UW-Madison campus this week for a two-day residency where she will give master classes and perform.

Imai will be joined by two other distinguished guest violists, both Taiwanese: Wei-Ting Kuo (below top, in a photo by Todd Rosenberg) now of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and formerly the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; and En-Chi Cheng (below bottom), a prize-winning, concertizing student of Imai now studying at the Juilliard School.

For detailed biographies of all three violists  go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/nobuko-imai-with-wei-ting-kuo-and-the-uw-madison-viola-studio/

The violists will give two FREE concerts in the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue.

At 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Collins Recital Hall, Nobai and the two other guest artists will perform with viola students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. No program has been given for them. Nobuko will also perform a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach with UW-Madison collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below).

Then at NOON tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 31, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform the melodious “American” Viola Quintet by Antonin Dvorak with Imai. (You can hear the second movement of the Dvorak quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition to a viola arrangement of the “Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals, Imai will perform the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Trio in C Major for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87, with Wei-Ting Kuo and Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below, second from right). 


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its 94th season this weekend with the sonic sensuality of music by Wagner, Dvorak, Debussy and Barber

September 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has been warmer than the usual fall weather, so why not go sultry?

That’s what the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will do when it opens its 94th season this coming weekend.

The program “Love, Lust and Redemption” will combine the power of the Klais organ (below top) with MSO principal organist and curator of the Overture Concert Organ Greg Zelek who opens the season with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva.

The all-orchestral program also features the Madison Symphony Orchestra exploring the sonic sensuality of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”Overture, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

Performances will are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 28, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 29, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. For more information, see below.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) says of the program:

“Our opening concert is both festive and gorgeously romantic as we present our star organist Greg Zelek (below) in his MSO concerto debut.

“We open with one of the most beautiful overtures ever written, Wagner’s Overture to the opera Tannhäuser and then, after intermission, the great Symphony No. 7 in D Minor by Dvorak.

In between is the little jewel by Debussy, his quintessential impressionistic masterpiece, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. All are favorites of mine, and I look forward to making them favorites of yours, if they aren’t already.”

Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music” by Richard Wagner (below) is frequently performed as a separate work in orchestral concerts, the first such performance having been given by Felix Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in February 1846.

Wagner began revisions to the opera immediately, which resulted in two more versions: the Paris version in 1861 and the Vienna version in 1875. Members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra Chorus also perform in this piece.

TheToccata Festiva was written by the American composer Samuel Barber (below) as an occasional work for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. It pairs organ and orchestra, and celebrated the inauguration of a new organ for the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, a gift from longtime patron Mary Curtis Zimbalist who had also commissioned the new piece.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faunby French composer Claude Debussy (below) is a musical evocation of Stephane Mallarmé’s poem “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a faun — a half-man, half-goat creature of ancient Greek legend — awakes to revel in sensuous memories of forest nymphs. Debussy begins the piece with a sinuous and well-known flute melody evocative of a graceful female form.

Symphony No. 7 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was greatly influenced by Johannes Brahms. Dvorak decided to compose this symphony after hearing Brahms’s new Symphony No. 3.

The piece is distinguished for its somber and dramatic atmosphere and its lack of Slavic-inspired melodies, a characteristic with which the composer’s style is usually associated. (You can hear the vivacious Scherzo in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msosept19programnotes.

 

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/love-lust-redemptionthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • 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 $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 19-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Subscriptionsfor the 2019–2020 season are available now. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20

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


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Classical music: The Karp family turns in a memorable and moving 40th annual Labor Day concert that also took listeners back in time

September 5, 2019
4 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

If you missed the free 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert on Tuesday night in Mills Hall, you missed more than music. You missed the kind of event that makes for long and precious memories.

Sure, you can nitpick the program and the performers, who also included daughter-in-law violist Katrin Talbot (below right) and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below left), who performs with the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You could ask, for example, which cello transcription worked better – the Violin Sonatina, Op. 100, by Dvorak or the Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96, by Beethoven. (The Ear votes for the Dvorak.)

And you could also ask which performer stood out the most. (The Ear thinks that is the great-grandmother and matriarch pianist Frances Karp playing in a Mozart piano quartet. At 90, Frances still possesses beautiful tone, the right volume and balance, and the necessary technical chops. They say there is nowhere to hide in Mozart, but Frances Karp did need any place to hide. Her Mozart was, simply, sublime.)

But, in the end, those kinds of questions and critiques really seem beside the bigger point.

What mattered most was the sheer enjoyment of hearing a family perform live some wonderful music by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Schumann (the passionate Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, Op. 70, played by Lynn Harrell in the YouTube video at the bottom).

And what mattered more as The Ear thought about it was the kind of time travel the concert involved.

There were two kinds, really.

One had to do with having watched the various performing Karps – clearly Madison’s First Family of Music – over four decades. It was touching to realize that The Ear has seen cellist Parry Karp, to take one example, evolve from son to husband to father to grandfather. And through it all, the music remained.

In today’s culture of short attention spans, that kind of constancy and persistence — through the inevitable ups and downs of 40 years — is something to celebrate, admire and cherish.

Time travel happened in another way too.

The Ear first watched Frances Karp accompany her son Parry (below top), then watched son Christopher Karp accompany his older brother Parry (below bottom). And it called to mind the days when – before radio or recordings – families made music together in their homes.

Historically, that’s how many great composers and much great music got started. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn played piano duets with their gifted sisters, Nannerl and Fanny, respectively. Jean Sibelius played duets with his sister. And there were surely many more. Hausmusik, or “house music,” played a vital role.

And this is how it felt at the traditional Karp family concert. We felt invited into a loving, close and gifted musical family who were performing as much for each other as for the audience.

We could use more of that.

The musical and the familial mixed so beautifully, so convincingly, that all one can say after the event is “Thank you” with the ardent wish to hear them again next year.


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