The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: NPR gets rid of pianist Christopher O’Riley as a long-time host of “From the Top”

July 15, 2018
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of the award-winning program “From the Top” – which spotlights talented young classical musicians (below) and is broadcast weekly on National Public Radio (NPR) – you will want to know that this season is the last one for pianist Christopher O’Riley (below), who has hosted the show for the past 18 years.

NPR is not renewing his contract and O’Riley will NOT return for the 2018-19 season.

“From the Top” airs locally on Sunday nights — including tonight — at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

You might recall that O’Riley — a gifted and award-winning pianist is his own right — has also played his own concerts in Madison.

Years ago, he played his solo piano transcriptions of rock songs by Radiohead at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This past spring, he played a Mozart piano concerto to close the season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

For more about the 61-year-old O’Riley, here is a link to his biography on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_O%27Riley

For the radio program, he accompanied some of the talented young classical musicians who were featured, and also provided short interludes of solo piano music, which were compiled on a CD several years ago.

For more about the show (below), go to: https://www.fromthetop.org and view the YouTube video at the bottom, which features a behind-the-scenes look at the show:

Although it focuses on string players who have appeared on “From the Top,” here is a story, with many names and details, from The Violin Channel:

https://theviolinchannel.com/christopher-oriley-from-the-top-radio-tv-let-go-contract-not-renewed/

One thing worth mentioning is that O’Riley’s departure will NOT mark the end of the show. “From the Top” will continue with guest hosts, some of whom will be successful or famous alumni of the show.

What do you think of the news about Christopher O’Riley?

What do you think of “From the Top”?

What do you think of Christopher O’Riley as a host and a pianist?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: This Sunday, Beverly Taylor retires as associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Kyle Knox will succeed Taylor starting this fall.

June 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has announced that Associate Conductor Beverly Taylor (below) will retire from her current position after 22 years, effective this Sunday, July 1.

Taylor will continue to serve as Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a  photo by Greg Anderson).

She will also continue as the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she conducts many groups including the Choral Union (below) and the Concert Choir.

Kyle Knox (below) will become the MSO’s new Associate Conductor, effective in the 2018–2019 season.

“I am delighted that Beverly will continue to work with the Madison Symphony Chorus. The chorus has improved steadily under her direction and will sing some very difficult music in the coming seasons,” said MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “I also want to thank Beverly for the outstanding help she has given me in the preparation of our concerts over the years.”

“I’ve loved my time as associate conductor of the symphony, and will continue as chorus director,” says Taylor. “But I’m looking forward to more time for guest conducting, visiting friends and family and finishing the two books I’m at work on. I also have a grant to write a basic conducting textbook, and I’m finishing a handbook on how to develop a musical interpretation.”

John DeMain says he looks forward to Knox joining the MSO. “I think Kyle Knox is a natural to step into the associate conductor position. He has distinguished himself in the past few years with his work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker). He also successfully led the MSO in last year’s Concert on the Green.

“His recent appointment as Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is a testament to his brilliant talent and will dovetail easily with his duties with the MSO. I so look forward to our working together and welcome him to our Madison Symphony Orchestra family.”

Knox is also very pleased with his appointment.

“My history with the MSO goes back a few years and I have long admired the work of Maestro DeMain and this wonderful group of musicians,” he says. “It is an honor to have been selected for this opportunity and I look forward to happy years of service and collaboration.”

BACKGROUND BIOGRAPHIES

Beverly Taylor has been the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Director of the Madison Symphony Chorus since 1996 and Director of Choral Activities at UW-Madison since 1995.

Prior roles include conductor of the Boston Bar Association Orchestra, Music Director of the Back Bay Chorale, and Associate Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University.

Taylor has been a guest conductor at the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the Vermont Symphony, the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the U.S. Air Force Band and Orchestra, the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and the Wellesley Chamber Singers.

She graduated from the University of Delaware and Boston University School for the Arts and received a fellowship with Chorus America and an orchestral fellowship at Aspen.

Kyle Knox will take over the dual positions of Music Director of WYSO and Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra beginning in the 2018–2019 season.

Past and upcoming conducting credits include Mark Adamo’s Little Women with the Madison Opera; Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw, and Transformations; with UW-Madison’s University Opera; the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Concert on the Green; Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and H.M.S. Pinafore with the Madison Savoyards; as well as UW Music Clinic’s High School Honors Orchestra.

Other concerts include Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd (2018) with Middleton Players Theatre, Jon Deak’s The Passion of Scrooge with Oakwood Chamber Players, as well as regular appearances with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

He was formerly a clarinetist with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Santa Fe Opera and Philadelphia Orchestras, and was on the faculty at UW-Milwaukee. Festivals credits include Tanglewood, Spoleto (Italy), Santa Fe Chamber Music, and Bowdoin College, among others. His debut album, the first commercial recording of Conrad Susa’s chamber opera Transformations, will be released in the summer of 2018 on iTunes. He holds degrees from Juilliard School and the UW-Madison. He  is married to MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. 


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Classical music: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/


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Classical music: The second annual Mineral Point Chamber Festival – with both free and ticketed performances — takes place this coming weekend

June 5, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The summer music season in the Madison area — which kicks off big-time this weekend – just seems to get busier and busier.

The second annual Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival will take place this coming Friday through Sunday, June 8-10.

All the information — including ensembles, complete repertoire and concerts times and venues — is available at artsmp.org under “Chamber Music Festival.” You will also find there some extensive audio samples of the performers.

There are three ticketed concerts that will take place at the refurbished Mineral Point Opera House (below top, by Michael J. Smith, and bottom):

Tickets are $20, and a package pass for all three concerts is $49.

The schedule for ticketed events is:

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m., the cello-and-piano Artu Duo (below) from the University of Minnesota will perform music by Robert Schumann, Bohuslav Martinu and Ludwig van Beethoven.

On Saturday at 7:30 p.m. the Volante Winds (below) from Indiana University will perform music by Samuel Barber, Karl Pilss, Gyorgy Orban and Giulio Briccialdi.

On Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., the Altino Duo (below), from Madison, will perform music by Zoltan Kodaly, Maurice Ravel and Johan Halvorsen.

There are also two FREE concerts. They feature many other works by many other composers including George Frideric Handel, Johann Pachelbel, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Jacques Ibert and Samuel Barber.

The first FREE concert is on Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Congregational United Church of Christ, 300 Maiden St., and features Q&A sessions after each ensemble’s performance.

The second FREE concert — weather permitting — is on Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. in Library Park (below) and features the Festival Brass.

The festival’s director Peter Schmalz explains the philosophy of the festival, which strikes The Ear as a savvy way to host a festival of fine performers and great music for very reasonable ticket prices:

“We are a festival devoted to providing opportunity to emerging talent,” says Schmalz. “At least 50 percent of the membership of each ensemble must be currently enrolled students.

“This year we ran into an insoluble problem, when one member of the Zima Piano Trio from Indiana University could not be approved for employment because of her current status as an international student.

“Hence we have the last-minute substitution of the Altino Duo from Madison – cellist Leonardo Altino and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino – who are both college professors and obviously not a student ensemble. (She teaches at the UW-Madison, and he teaches privately in Madison and at the Wheaton College Conservatory near Chicago.)

(Editor’s note: You can read more background about the Altinos, and about playing together as spouses, here: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/01/22/classical-music-what-is-it-like-to-play-music-with-a-spouse-local-wife-and-husband-violinist-and-cellist-open-the-winter-masterworks-season-of-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-with-the-brahms-double/

“The Altinos were very gracious about helping us in this situation, and will present a concert Sunday, June 10, of music that is included on their recently released CD “En voyage.”” (You can hear them perform the Duo for Violin and Cello by Zoltan Kodaly, which is on the recording, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

If you want to see the sponsors of the festival or become a sponsor, go to the bottom of the page at: http://www.artsmp.org/chamber-music-fest/


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: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Con Vivo ends its 16th season this Saturday night with chamber music by Bartok, Beethoven, Dvorak and Brahms

May 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Con Vivo — or music with life (below) — concludes its 16th season with music of Bartok, Dvorak, Beethoven and Brahms.

The chamber music concert, entitled “Spring Romance,” includes Duets for Viola and Cello by Bela Bartok; the Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak; the Romance, Op. 50, for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the supremely beautiful Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Brahms, played by clarinetist David Shifrin and the Guarneri String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert takes place on this coming Saturday night, June 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

Audience members are invited to join the musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss the concert.

New to this concert: Con Vivo will perform in the Chapel at First Congregational Church, creating a more intimate chamber music experience for the audience.

In remarking about the concert, artistic director Robert Taylor says: “We finish our 16th season with music evocative of spring romances. The wonderful Romances for violin and piano by Dvorak and Beethoven are contrasted by miniatures for viola and cello by Bartok that highlight our members in a soloist role. The evening is capped off with the beautiful Clarinet Quintet by Johannes Brahms. What could be a better way to spend a spring evening?”

Con Vivo is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.


Classical Music: Today is Memorial Day 2018. What music would you play to honor those who died in service to their country?

May 28, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2018, when those soldiers who died in war and military service to their country — in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard or whatever other branch — are honored. (Below is an Associated Press photo of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.)

Many blogs, newspapers and radio stations list classical music that is appropriate for the occasion.

But one of the very best overviews and compilations that The Ear has seen comes this year from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California.

Here is a link:

http://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2018/05/25/classical-selections-in-honor-of-memorial-day/

Another very good selection dates from last year and comes from Nashville Public Radio.

Perhaps that makes sense because Nashville is such a musical city.

Perhaps it has to do with other reasons.

Whatever the cause, this playlist gives you modern and contemporary composers and music (John Adams, Joseph Bertolozzi and Jeffrey Ames) as well as tried-and-true classics (Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar— the famous and moving “Nimrod” Variation that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin).

It even features some music that The Ear is sure you don’t know.

Take a look and many listens:

http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Finally, you can also hear some appropriate music for today on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Do you agree with the choices?

Do you like them or at least some of them? Which ones?

Which music would you choose or add to mark today’s holiday?

Leave a title and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra ends its eighth season this coming THURSDAY night with an ambitious program featuring the piano concerto by Schumann and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

May 25, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below): They keep testing and pushing themselves towards bigger achievements and more difficult music.

This coming Thursday night, May 31 – NOT the usual Wednesday night  performance time — the MCP will close out its eighth season with an ambitious program.

As The Ear has said many times before, both in reviews and when he named the MCO “Musician of the Year” for 2014, there is so much to praise and enjoy about the MCO:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-adult-amateur-music-makers-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2014/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/classical-music-maybe-its-back-to-the-future-the-classical-music-scene-needs-more-groups-to-act-like-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-break-down-barriers-between-performers-and-listene/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

The all-Romantic, all-masterpiece program this time features a familiar soloist, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) in the supremely lyrical Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the poignant slow movement played by Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kasdorf graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he is now doing graduate work in piano.

In addition, the MCO will close with the formidable Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Sometimes called “Beethoven’s 10th,” it will be conducted by Steve Kurr (below), the usual and very able conductor of the MCO.

The concert is on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street. It is a comfortable venue, and a good shelter from the hot weather and humidity that are predicted to overtake us for the next week or so.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15, but students are admitted free of charge — a deal that is hard to beat.

Advance tickets can also be purchased at the Willy Street Coop West.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert for the music-makers and the audience to mingle – the perfect way to end a season.

If you want to find out more about the MCO season or about how to join it or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


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