The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir performs a program of music that expresses suffering, oppression and resistance this Wednesday night at UW-Madison

June 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Summer Choir (below) will present its ninth annual concert, “Art: The Timeless Resistance – The Voice of the Oppressed,” on this coming Wednesday night, June 28, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall of the UW-Madison’s Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St.

The suggested ticket donation is $15.

The concert brings together a variety of works that have served as an outlet for suffering peoples, works that gave them a voice where they otherwise had none.

The concert will begin with Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, a traditional Spiritual arranged by Jay Althouse.

This is followed by Miriam’s Song of Triumph, composed by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) very near the end of his short life to a German text (Mirjams Siegesgesang) by Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer. The text and music describe the Exodus and the celebration of Miriam and the Israelites after fleeing Egypt. (You can hear the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The first half ends with two shorter works again in English, There Will be Rest, a setting of a poem by Sara Teasdale by Frank Ticheli (below top), of the University of Southern California,  and How Can I Keep from Singing? by Baptist minister and American literature professor Robert Lowry (1826-1899, below bottom), as arranged in 2010 by Taylor Davis.

The choir will be accompanied by oboist Malia Huntsman and concertmaster Elspeth Stalter-Clouse.

The second half of the program is devoted to the Mass in C (1807) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and will be performed with full orchestra.

The choir was founded by UW-Madison graduate and artistic director Ben Luedcke (below) – who now teaches at Monmouth College — after the UW Summer Choir was eliminated due to budget constraints.

The Madison Summer Choir is an auditioned choir of 60 to 70 voices that performs a cappella works, piano-accompanied works and choral-orchestral works in a short season at the beginning of summer.

This student and community singing opportunity and tradition continue thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our singers and our audience to fund our complete existence in six weeks.

Go to madisonsummerchoir.org to learn more.


Classical music: Prodigy violinist Julian Rhee performs a recital of Bach, Beethoven and others in Spring Green on Monday night

June 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Rural Musicians Forum:

“His performance knocked our socks off.”

That remark came two years ago from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra about the competition performance by violinist Julian Rhee (below, at 14) with the orchestra. This February he played the entire Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms with the WCO.

Then in March, Rhee (below at 16) won first place in the Madison Symphony Wisconsin Young Artists Final Forte competition with his brilliant performance of the first movement of Peter Tchaikovsky’s virtuosic Violin Concerto in D Major. And that is just 2017!

Now 16 and a junior at Brookfield East High School, Julian Rhee has been winning violin competitions almost every year since he was 7.

And he has received accolades to match, such as this quote from classical music blog The Well Tempered Ear: “What makes Rhee so outstanding is that the level of his musicality matches his high technical mastery.” (You can hear him talk about himself and his playing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

His recital on this coming Monday night, June 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Spring Green will feature beautiful works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Henryk Wieniawski and Eugene Ysaye. (Sorry, no word on specific works.)

He will be performing at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below), at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green.

This will be the second concert of the Rural Musicians Forum 2017 Summer Series, “Beautiful Music in a Beautiful Space.”

A free-will donation will be requested.

The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, in Spring Green.

Don’t miss this concert. You’ll be able to say, “I heard him before he became famous!”

For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org


Classical music: Wednesday brings the fifth annual Make Music Madison celebration of the summer solstice. You can hear FREE music of all kinds from morning to night, outdoors and indoors

June 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Registration has closed and the fifth annual Make Music Madison festival is set to take place tomorrow, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. ( A promotional video from the 2013 event is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The annual celebration of the Summer Solstice, which arrives at 11;24 p.m. tonight, will run all day, featuring all kinds of music from morning to night, and take place indoors and outdoors.

And it is FREE and completely local.

So far, there are more than 275 artists registered to perform at 108 venues in every area across the city, including the Dane County Regional Airport, Henry Vilas Zoo, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, the Goodman Center, Hilldale Mall, the First Congregational United Church of Christ, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For a complete listing, go to: http://www.makemusicmadison.org

Once you are on the website, go to the map on the right hand side and under FILTER and GENRE and click on classical. You will find more than 20 events.

Then click on the VENUE’s tear-drop shaped red indicator to see the name of artists, group and kind of music you can hear.

They include a cello choir, an early music group, a guitar ensemble, string quartets and the Suzuki Strings of Madison (seen below at last spring’s Bach Around the Clock.) There is plenty of amateur music-making, which The Ear loves to see, but also some professional performances.

The click on the name and you will get more detailed background and a program, if one is available.

You can also search by ARTIST and VENUE – including general areas of the city — and well as by GENRE.

Take it from The Ear: This site has some really impressive and easy-to-use organization for getting at its information. So The Ear gives big shout-outs to to the people who designed the website and put it together.

Of course there are many more events in other genres and kinds of music, including blues, jazz, rock, roots, folk, world music and others. But many of them overlap or pertain to classical music, and you won’t want to miss them.

There is plenty to go around.

The Ear might even meet you at one of the events.

Enjoy! Have fun!


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org


Classical music: Maestro Andrew Sewell has been named the new music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California while retaining his longtime post as music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

June 16, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra‘s longtime music director Andrew Sewell (below) has been named the new music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.

The news comes in between the end of a critically acclaimed and very successful Masterworks season in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and the start of the upcoming and always popular summer Concerts on the Square on Wednesday evenings from June 29 through Aug. 2.

Sewell, who was born and trained in New Zealand, has been an American citizen for the past 10 years. He led the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for 10 years and the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, and he also guest conducts in Hong Kong and many other cities in the U.S. and abroad.

Asked if the move means there will be guest conductors for the WCO, Sewell told The Ear:

“I will be conducting all concerts this year. The schedules for both orchestras work surprisingly well together.

“The situation is not unlike the first 10 years of my tenure in Madison when I was music director of the Wichita Symphony concurrently with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I’ll share my time between both communities.” 

For more about Sewell’s impressive and extensive background, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/andrew-sewell/

Here is a statement from the WCO:

“When Maestro Sewell raises his baton at Concerts on the Square this month, he will also be embarking on a new position as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony. (At bottom, he seen conducting the San Luis Obispo Symphony.)

“Fans of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra need not worry, though, as he will retain his position and residence here in Madison. 

“We’re very proud of Andrew and what he has accomplished here in Madison, around the nation and abroad” said Mark Cantrell, CEO of the WCO. “This appointment reinforces what we already know about Andrew, that he is an exciting and impressive director and musician.

“We’re fortunate to retain him here as music director, and we look forward to many more years of him behind the baton with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. We wish him the best of luck in San Luis Obispo.”

For more about this story, use the following links:

Here is a WCO posting about the news:

Global Search Yields Symphony’s Ninth Conductor

And here is a newspaper story with many details about Sewell and his plans for the new position, including where he will live, as well as his plans for sharing repertoire and guest soloists:

SLO Symphony has a new director


Classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms join beer and brats at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s new FREE Summer Serenades starting this Sunday afternoon at the Union Terrace

June 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Spread the word but get your seat early!

This coming Sunday afternoon, beer and brats are about to mix with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at Madison’s premier summer watering hole when the new FREE Summer Serenades begin at the landmark Union Terrace (below).

The Ear likes that combination a lot along with classical concerts that last only about an hour. No details on the programs yet, but hey — for an hour you can be a sport and chance it.

“Casual high-brow” increasingly seems the way to go, especially in Madison. And fittingly, a lot of the performers chosen by the Wisconsin Union Theater have ties to the UW-Madison as professors, graduates and students.

All hour-long concerts are FREE and take place on Sundays at 5 p.m., except on July 2, which will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below)
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Named 2016 Musicians of the Year by The Well-Tempered Ear Blog, their programming is adventurous, combining beloved classics and new music from contemporary composers.

Stephanie Jutt, flute (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf, piano (below bottom)

Sunday, July 2, 2017 at 5:30

Two of Madison’s most esteemed musicians will delight with melodies from their upcoming CD and will celebrate the Fourth of July weekend with patriotic tunes.

 Isthmus Brass

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comprised of the finest professional brass players in the Midwest, Isthmus Brass (below) is Wisconsin’s premiere large brass ensemble. It has performed on concert series and music festivals throughout the Midwest.

An Evening of Arias and Art Songs

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hear a fun night of comic and classic melodies from your favorite operas. It features extraordinary lead singers from the School of Music and UW Opera Theater. Among them: Katie Anderson, soprano (below top); Courtney Kayser, mezzo-soprano (below middle); José Muñiz, tenor (below bottom); and accompanist Thomas Kasdof, piano.

Sound Out Loud and Lucia String Quartet

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sound Out Loud (below) specializes in contemporary music from the early 20th century to the present. They expand the realm of possibilities within contemporary chamber music repertoire through the implementation of experimental techniques, the incorporation of a variety of instruments and musical styles from the Middle East and Asia, innovative performance practice, and the use of live electronics.

The Lucia String Quartet (below) has been performing at events throughout the Midwest for over 15 years. The string quartet’s repertoire puts a fresh spin on many favorite rock/pop songs as well as eloquently performing classical pieces.

Summer Serenades are presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee with support from the Bill and Char Johnson Classical summer Concert Series Fund.

This is the inaugural season But Ralph Russo, director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, adds: “The 2017 Summer Serenades is a pilot program. The coordinator has put together an excellent program in a very short time and I’m confident we’ll see a good audience response.

“Assuming all goes well I’m hopeful it will continue for many summers to come. But we won’t know for certain until we do a thorough evaluation at the end of summer and determine if the donor is interested and willing to continue funding the program.”


Classical music: John W. Barker’s book on the history of UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet to be published this fall

June 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Local chamber music fans may recall that five or six years ago, the gala centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet, the string quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was celebrated in many ways.

After all, the Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) had by then become the longest-lived string quartet in the history of music.

Furthermore, the quartet and the UW-Madison established the model for chamber music group affiliations with universities, which has since become standard.

There were six commissions, later recorded in two volumes and three CDs (below) by Albany Records.

There were many free live concerts with the world premieres of the commissions.

There was a tour to Belgium (below is a concert at the Royal Conservatory), the home country of the quartet that was exiled in Madison while on tour in 1941, when Hitler invaded Belgium during World War II.

There was a terrific and impressive Pro Arte Quartet display at Dane County Regional Airport, put together with Tandem Press art publishers at the UW-Madison.

And there was a book, a complete history of the Pro Arte Quartet, commissioned from John W. Barker (below), a professor emeritus of Medieval history at the UW-Madison who is also the premier music critic in Madison. He writes for Isthmus and this blog.

Now his project, full of original research, has come to fruition and will be published in October.

Here is a link to information, including how to pre-order a copy, about the book and the author from the University of Rochester Press (Boydell and Brewer):

https://boydellandbrewer.com/the-pro-arte-quartet-hb.html

 


Classical music: The first-ever Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival takes place this coming weekend – and looks both very appealing and very affordable

June 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In retrospect, it seems inevitable.

But it took foresight and hard work.

For many years, the historic town of Mineral Point (below) – once a major lead and zinc mining town that is the third oldest city in Wisconsin – has been cultivating and rejuvenating itself through restoration and innovation as an enjoyable tourism stop, with fine restaurants, historic landmarks, terrific art galleries and gracious hosts.

Small wonder that the Smithsonian Magazine named Mineral Point one of the Top 20 Small Towns to Visit in the U.S.

But this coming weekend the appeal and attractions will move up a big notch.

That is because the inaugural Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival will take place this coming weekend, June 9-11, 2017.

To The Ear, the performers look excellent, the program look engaging and the prices sure look affordable.

Concerts by three young professional classical chamber music ensembles will be presented in the recently restored historic Mineral Point Opera House (below top and bottom, with the top photo by Michael J. Smith), an ideal chamber music venue with excellent acoustics.

The weekend will begin on Friday at 7 p.m. with a panel discussion by several ensemble performers and Festival Director Peter Schmalz about various aspects of classical music. A reception in the Mineral Point Public Library will follow the discussion.

Scheduled concerts include: at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the Ami String Quartet (below top) from Northwestern University in the String Quartet No. 1 by Bela Bartok and the “Harp” String Quartet, Op. 74, by Ludwig van Beethoven; at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Trombone Quartet (below bottom) will perform music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Bruckner, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich and others; and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Ami String Quartet will perform the String Quartet No. 1 of Johannes Brahms and the String Quartet No. 12 (“American”) by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the first movement of the famous “American” String Quartet by Dvorak in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ticket prices are: $10 for the panel discussion and reception; $15 for each concert; and $38 for the panel discussion and all three concerts.

Adds festival director Peter Schmalz:

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival is designed to meet three goals: to create classical chamber music listening opportunities for local and nearby residents; to establish a cultural tourism experience for visitors to Mineral Point; and to provide serious off-campus performances for advanced university chamber music ensembles.

“Summer classical music festivals were established in the 20th century to provide employment for orchestral and other professional musicians during the off-season. The fortunate result for the music-lover is an abundance of listening opportunities in every genre of classical music, often in locations away from the congestion and heat of large cities.

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival modifies this design by presenting accomplished undergraduate and graduate ensembles in a compelling small-town setting at a reasonable cost. (Below is the Arts Mineral Point logo.)

“In addition to the Festival concerts, we encourage listeners to enjoy the food, galleries, architecture, landscape and people of Mineral Point. In the words of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Classical music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for classical music.”

The Mineral Point Opera House is, in size and acoustics, an ideal venue for classical chamber music. Performers were selected by competitive audition, and will be housed by local residents for the weekend.

In addition to three concerts, festival attendees can be involved in a panel discussion about issues in classical chamber music, by asking their own questions of the panel.

The UW-Madison Trombone Quartet and students from Mineral Point High School and Dodgeville High School will also present a short concert in Library Park prior to the 1 p.m. concert on Sunday in the Opera House.

For complete information about events and tickets with complete programs for each concert, go to:

http://www.artsmp.org/chamber-music-fest/


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Con Vivo concludes its 15th season with an outstanding concert of music by Spohr, Martinu and Dvorak with guest conductor John DeMain

May 28, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

For the conclusion of its 15th season, the Con Vivo chamber music ensemble (below, in a photo by Don Sylvester) called out an unusual plethora of players.

And, as it did back in 2013, it brought back conductor John DeMain (below), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera, to whip them into shape.

The program consisted of three very ample works.

The first was the Nonet, Op. 31, composed in 1813 by Louis Spohr (below, 1784-1859) — the first of its kind for this combination of strings and winds.

It’s in that no-longer-Classical-but-not-quite-Romantic idiom in which Beethoven was the big troublemaker. It is music of charm and imagination, altogether enjoyable as one appreciates the composer’s experimentation.

Following this was a contrasting work in the same form, the Nonet No. 2 (1959) by Bohuslav Martinu (below, 1890-1959). It dates from the last months of the composer’s life — note that, by coincidence, he died exactly a century after Spohr.

Using Spohr’s same combination of the nine instruments (below), it is a perky affair, in which Czech song and dance meet Igor Stravinsky, as it were. The second of its three movements is a particularly beautiful piece of coloristic writing. It can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The pièce-de-resistance was the final work, the Serenade, Op. 44 (1878), by Antonin Dvorak (below, 1841-1904).

I have to admit that this is one of my favorite works by one of my favorite composers. Composed for 11 players, it is really the composer’s tribute to Mozart, via a Romantic rethinking of the kind of wind serenades that Mozart wrote so wonderfully.

Thus, it is really a wind octet, with the addition of a third horn plus two string players (cello and double bass). Adding those two stringed instruments was a wonderful idea, allowing a significant enrichment of textures in the bass role.

The pool of 14 players involved in the program drew upon a lot of superlative talent active in the Madison area. Highly accomplished players individually, they join in full-bodied ensembles, given the added spirit brought by DeMain’s leadership.

While it would be unfair to single out individuals too much, I must say that I was greatly impressed by Olga Pomolova’s command of the fiendishly difficult violin parts in the two nonets, while I was also struck by the strong leadership of Laura Medisky, who played oboe in the nonets and first oboe in the serenade. (Valree Casey played second oboe in the serenade.)

The audience at First Congregational Church responded justly with an enthusiastic ovation at the end. Truly an outstanding concert!


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