The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Con Vivo delivers moving and memorable performances of German Romantic chamber music for clarinet and strings by Brahms and Schubert.

November 1, 2015
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves 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

John Barker

In another absurdly overcrowded weekend of events, I chose to catch the concert by Con Vivo! (below), the group based at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. It is always good for an adventurous and varied evening of chamber music, and this one on Friday night was no exception.

Con Vivo 2015

Back from a tour last June in Germany of the  sister province of Kassel, the group chose to present what it called an evening of “German Romance’. The program contained only two works: the Trio in A minor, Op. 114, for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, by Johannes Brahms; and Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.

I had heard a kind of dress rehearsal performance the previous evening in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes, and it was interesting to compare simply the acoustical effects. That hall is live but modest in size, so that everything was close, if somewhat dry. In the spacious confines of the Congregational Church, there was a more glowing reverberation, if a notable difference in distances.

For practical reasons, the Brahms work was played at the far end of the church’s chancel, next to the organ, losing some of the intimate contact it should have with the audience. But the sound did carry well, with warmth.

The work was the first of a series of late chamber works Brahms composed, as inspired by the eminent clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Unlike its successors, this trio did not feature the clarinet as the dominant soloist, but gave it an affectionately duetting role with the cello.

Clarinetist Robert Taylor (below left) played with ripe confidence, but cellist Derek Handley served as a distinctly individual partner in his own right. Dan Lyons was a muscular Brahmsian on the piano. It proved a beautiful performance of a work not too readily encountered in concert. (You can hear the songful third movement in a YouTube at the bottom.)

Con Vivo Brahms clarinet Trio 2015) 2

The other work is one of the most sublime chamber pieces ever composed. Schubert wrote it just two months before his death, of syphilis, at the pitiful age of 31. He knew he was dying, and in this last major work of his, he poured into the music the most incredible mixture of beauty and pain.

Once one gets below the glowing aura of the ensemble writing, it becomes obvious that there is an imbalance in textures. The first violin part is clearly dominant, frequently given almost a soloist’s role against mostly chordal accompaniments by the other four players (including a second cello). At times one might even imagine the violin as a singer in some new Schubert Lieder, or songs.

Con Vivo Schubert Quintet 2015 JWB

Con Vivo 2015 Brahms quintet playing

Fortunately, first violinist Olga Pomolova, who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, was fully on target in intonation and in passages of virtuosic display. The other players joined her in a deeply felt and richly delivered performance that was simply superb.

It was an evening, then, of the most deeply satisfying chamber playing.

 


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet welcomes back first violinist Leanne Kelso League and turns in an outstanding performance of an unusual program to kick off its new season.

September 21, 2015
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a technical glitch, a post about the Madison Symphony Orchestra principal clarinet Joseph Morris was mistakenly released earlier today. It was and is scheduled to appear tomorrow, getting posted tonight at midnight. The Ear regrets the mistake and any inconvenience.

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet opened its new season at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night. An immediate feature of the event was the return of Leanne Kelso League as the group’s first violinist.

(In the photo below taken by John W. Barker, League is on the far left followed by violinist Robin Ryan, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt.)

Her absence on sabbatical for the past two seasons has prompted some experimentation, last season with two different guest first violinists. Each was individual, and brought individual new qualities with each shift.

But it was good to have League back again, bringing her powerful and incisive qualities of playing and leadership once more to the group.

Ancora Quartet 2015 JWB

The program was an interesting venture in relative novelties.

The opening work was the penultimate string quartet by Felix Mendelssohn (below), his Op. 44, No. 3. Mendelssohn’s chamber works, especially his quartets, are often kept in the shadows; but they deserve attention, especially this one. In E-flat major, it offers first two movements marked by stormy assertiveness. The third movement is a thing of warm beauty and slightly sad nostalgia, while the final movement seemed to establish a balance between the contrasting moods of what preceded.

The performance was superb, certainly belying the idea many have that Mendelssohn was just a lightweight composer. This is powerful music. That the Ancora performance was so strong and passionately articulated certainly owed a lot to League’s renewed participation.

mendelssohn_300

The surprise of the program, though, was the second of the three quartets by Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960, below). The chamber music by this Late Romantic or Post-Romantic Hungarian master is not often performed and recorded, but the Ancora performance made it clear it should be heard more often.

In D-flat major, this quartet dates from 1906, and shows its roots well back in 19th-century traditions. Its three movements are filled with beautiful melodiousness amid busy aggressiveness, and the work is, in effect, a kind of debate between such opposed spirits. (You can hear the lovely third movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The members of the Ancora — who also play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — gave it a superbly committed, convincing rendition. More, please!

ernst von dohnanyi

Finally, the quartet played one of the few chamber works by the Viennese Hugo Wolf (1860-1903, below in 1902), famous for his German Lieder or art songs. The Italian Serenade is certainly his most recurrent concert work, a piece of durable froth that is always a pleasure to hear, and provides an upbeat way to end a program.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

The Ancora String Quartet is scheduled to return on May 21.


Classical music: Two MUST-HEAR chamber music concerts – one all-Schubert, the other by the Pro Arte Quartet with soprano Emily Birsan — are on tap this weekend at the UW-Madison School of Music ahead of Super Bowl XLIX. Plus, you can hear a FREE recital of flute music at noon on Friday.

January 28, 2015
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature flutist Peiyi Guan and pianist Zijin Yao playing music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Henri Dutilleux and Chen Yi.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

There are two really notable MUST-HEAR concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music this coming weekend.

And they come in a way that you can think of them as preludes to Sunday evening’s Super Bowl XLIX — that is 49 to us non-Latins — because they don’t interfere with the overhyped sports event.

FRIDAY NIGHT

On Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall is the second annual “Schubertiade” (below, a photo from 2014). It is a joyous evening of mixed musical genres that celebrates the birthday of Franz Schubert (below, 1797-1829), who used to unveil his new music at friendly social gatherings (below top). It all takes place on the informally set-up stage of Mills Hall (below bottom).

Schubertiade in color by Julius Schmid

The Music of Franz Schubert

There will be many songs, of course, an art form pioneered by the most empathetic and human of composers. The songs will be performed by UW baritone Paul Rowe, soprano Cheryl Rowe and also many UW voice students. There will be chamber music (the famous “Arpeggione” Sonata) with guest cellist Norman Fischer (Martha’s brother, who will be performing with his sister in public for the first time and who teaches at Rice University in Texas) and with violinist Leslie Shank. Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes will also perform two pieces for piano-four hands.

Franz Schubert big

Admission is $10 for the public; students get in for free. Tickets are available at the door and at the box office of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Here is a link to the School of Music official announcement:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/schubertiade/

And here is a terrific story by arts reporter and features writer Gayle Worland for The Wisconsin State Journal. Particularly notable are the interviews with the event organizers and main performers — wife-and-husband team of UW professor and collaborative pianist Martha Fischer and local piano teacher and former Wisconsin Public Radio host and music director Bill Lutes.

martha fischer and bill lutes

And here is a review of last year’s Schubertiade that The Ear posted on this blog:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/classical-music-what-classical-music-goes-best-with-the-nfls-super-bowl-48-football-championship-today-plus-university-of-wisconsin-madison-singers-and-instrumentalists-movingly-celebrate-franz-s/

Schubertide 2014 Bil Lutes and Martha Fischer

SATURDAY

Then on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a FREE concert of music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Anton Dvorak and Arnold Schoenberg.

Pro Arte Qartet  Overture Rick Langer

The special guest of honor is soprano Emily Birsan (below), a UW-Madison graduate who recently sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and whose first CD is about to be released on the Chandos label. (The recording is of the “Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf” by Sir Edward Elgar.)

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

The program includes the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 71, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 60, by Antonin Dvorak; and String Quartet No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg that will also feature Emily Birsan. (The fourth movement of the Schoenberg quartet can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to the UW School of Music announcement that has a lot of impressive background for the up-and-coming Emily Birsan and the Pro Arte Quartet, which has its own dramatic story of exile from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its invasion of Belgium, the Pro Arte homeland:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/pro-arte-quartet-2/

And here is a link to a profile of Emily Birsan, who was born in Neenah and attended Lawrence University in Appleton for her undergraduate degree as well as the UW-Madison for graduate work. Birsan is the cover story on the latest issue of the magazine “Classical Singer”:

http://www.classicalsinger.com/magazine/article.php?id=2813

PLEASE NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet program will be REPEATED on Sunday afternoon at 12:30 pm.. this SUNDAY at the Chazen Museum of Art, which has started its own concert program. But the concert will NO LONGER be broadcast by Wisconsin Public Radio. However, you can stream it live by going to the Chazen website (www.chazen.wisc.edu) at 12:30 p.m.


Classical music: Today, Sept. 22, 2014, is the first day of Fall. So The Ear plays two of Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.” But what would you listen to to mark the coming of Autumn?

September 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day of Fall in the Northern Hemisphere. The Autumn Equinox arrives tonight at 9:29 p.m. CDT.

autumn-leaves

This year, the timing of the season and the music I recently listened to worked out just perfectly.

Last week, you see, The Ear went to see the film “The Trip to Italy” (below), a sequel with British funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It was made by the award-winning director Michael Winterbottom, who also directed the first installment.

Steve Coogan and Rob†Brydon in†Camogli, Italy

I loved the first one, “The Trip,” in 2010. But like so many sequels, this film suffers from self-indulgence. There was too little plot, a lot of impersonations that are not immediately recognizable or entertaining, and the film goes on for too long.

The movie has its enjoyable, entertaining  and touching moments. to be sure.  But the really outstanding characters in this film are the Italian landscape and Italian cuisine, captured in stunning cinematography.

But, oh, the music! That was the high note, so to speak, for The Ear.

A recurrent theme is from “Four Last Songs” by the Late Romantic Richard Strauss (below, in 1914). It is “Im Abendrot,” and it strikes the right notes, even for The Ear, who not a big voice fan, whether in choral music, opera or Lieder and art songs.

richard strauss in 1914 Hutton Archive Getty Images

I was thinking of some appropriate music to play for the coming of the new season. There is always “Autumn” from “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi or the new “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

Then there is the late piano music and chamber music of Johannes Brahms, so often and aptly described as “autumnal.” Of course, the symphonies and songs of Gustav Mahler qualify as do many of the songs of Franz Schubert. And there is more, much more.

But this year, perhaps because of personal circumstances and sheer coincidence, anyway I found the Strauss songs — which were composed in 1948, a year before Strauss died at 84 — perfectly appropriate and fitting in mood.

Here are two of them, found on YouTube video and sung by the incomparable soprano Jessye Norman with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on the Philips label.

The first is “In Abendrot” (At Sunset). The poem or text, written by Joseph von Eichendorff — which is translated on the YouTube site if you click on “Show More” – – does not deal with autumn per se, but with loss and death. So the mood is surely autumnal and, I find, deeply moving. And it is a common motif in the film:

And then there is “September” from the poem by Nobel Prize-winning German writer Hermann Hesse.

I hope you enjoy these two songs by Strauss and also find them fitting to the season, just as I hope we have sunny and warm, a long and colorful Fall.

And I would love to know what other music best expresses the new season for you.

Just leave your suggestions, with YouTube links if possible, in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What classical music goes best with the NFL’s Super Bowl 48 football championship today? Plus, University of Wisconsin-Madison singers and instrumentalists movingly celebrate Franz Schubert in death as he was in life – with a “Schubertiade” birthday party.

February 2, 2014
11 Comments

READER POLL: The Ear wants to know what piece of classical music — if any — goes well with today’s NFL Super Bowl 48 national football championship between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks? Maybe Aram Khachaturian‘s “The Gladiators” from “Spartacus”? Leave your suggestions, with a link to a YouTube video if you can, in the COMMENTS section.

Super Bowl 48

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 every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

January 31, 1797 was the birthdate of Franz Schubert (below), who died at only 31 on Nov. 19, 1828. So Friday night, January 31, 2014, was the 217th anniversary of his birth.

Franz Schubert writing

With her opportunity of giving a faculty recital, University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist (and singer) Martha Fischer (below, in a photo by Karin Talbot) decided to do a very Schubertian thing to mark the anniversary: Have a party. (Event photos are by The Ear.)

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

In the last years of his short life, Schubert was sustained socially as well as financially by a devoted circle of friends, drawn from the cultural classes of Vienna in his day. Their spontaneous parties, which they came to call “Schubertiades” (depicted below, with Schubert at the piano, in a painting by Julius Schmid) were lively social gatherings with their focus on Schubert’s latest compositions.

Schubertiade in color by Julius Schmid

Accordingly, backed by her pianist husband, Bill Lutes, Fischer invited a number of colleagues from the UW School of Music to pay tribute to the beloved composer with a facsimile of a Schubertiade,

And so, the stage of Mills Hall (below) was fitted out with a large carpet, a standing floor lamp and circles of chairs welcomed members of the audience, to be close presences to the fun. (Alas, though, no free beer was included!)

Schubertiade 2014 stage in MIlls Hall

The constantly shifting lineup of singers involved four voice-faculty members (sopranos Mimmi Fulmer and Elizabeth Hagedorn (below top), tenor James Doing, baritone Paul Rowe) and three graduate students in voice (soprano Sarah Richardson, below bottom on the left), tenor Thomas Leighton (below bottom on the right) and baritone Jordan Wilson).

Schubertiade 2014 Elizabeth Hageborn

Schubertiade 2014 Sarah Richardson  soprano and Thomas Leighton tenor

Assuming her mezzo-soprano hat, Fischer sang two items herself, and she and Lutes rotated as piano accompanists, each demonstrating the talent and skill it takes to be a fine collaborative musician. Both of them tightly controlled the balance between voice and modern concert grand piano, never allowing the piano to drown the singers. And both pianists also matched the moods of the songs and the singers. That’s important because this concert had a lot of high-quality vocal talent, and it must be said that the student singers held their own splendidly with their faculty partners.

When one thinks about it, a great proportion of Schubert’s compositions is social music, meant for parlors and domestic music-making rather than concert situations.

That is most particularly true of his songs, and part-songs, with piano. The program offered 14 songs (with each singer having at least two solo assignments), one duet, and two part songs. The program was divided into two halves, with the general themes of “Night and Dreams” and “Love and Death.” While a couple of the songs were among Schubert’s more familiar ones (like the famous  “Die Forelle or The Trout, below as sung by baritone Jordan Wilson and also heard at the bottom in a YouTube video with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore) most were chosen artfully from among the less often-heard ones.

Schubertiade 2014 barione Jordan Wilson

Fulmer (below top) was particularly expressive in her two solos. She was, in fact, absolutely gripping in Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a Gothic-horror scene in which a court dwarf, betrayed by his former lover, the queen, kills her and sails into oblivion. (I unashamedly admit this grim masterpiece, so compellingly designed by Schubert, is one of my favorites among his songs.) James Doing (below bottom) had just the right range of gestures and expressions to make Lachen und Weinen (Laughter and Tears) a casual expression of ironic bafflement.

Schubertiade 2014 Mimmi Fulmer BIG

Schubertiade 2014 James Doing

And Paul Rowe (below) gave Totengräbers Heimweh (Grave-Digger’s Longing) a quality of dark probing into the very prospects of human mortality that Schubert himself was learning to fear when he wrote it. But perhaps it is unfair to single out individual performances, since they were all so lovely.

Scubertiade 2014 Paul Rowe baritone BIG

Each of the program’s two halves had its own instrumental intermezzo.

In the first half, it was the simple but moving Notturno (Nocturne) for violin, cello, and piano (below) — a discarded movement from one of Schubert’s piano trios, in which violin student Alice Bartsch and cello professor Parry Karp joined Fischer in a beautiful performance.

Scubertiade 2014 Notturno

For the second half, the dynamic duo of Fischer and Lutes plunged into the ambitious and late Fantasy in F minor for piano-four hands — surely among the supreme masterpieces of all music for piano duet.

Schubertide 2014 Bil Lutes and Martha Fischer

There was one added song, however, as the finale. All the singers gathered together to sing the sublime An die Musik (To Music), but with the audience invited to join in—sustained by a reproduction of the score on the back of the texts handout — and responded with a standing ovation for all the performers (below).

Schubertiade 2014 standing ovation

This kind of sing-along trick could have been cheap, but in fact it worked beautifully, with many in the audience adding their voices, obviously caught up in the spirit of that most social, most lovable and most astounding of great composers, Franz Schubert.

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