The Well-Tempered Ear

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

June 3, 2017
6 Comments

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.

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Classical music: “The Willies” –- the Willy Street Chamber Players -– excel in fabulous Bach and Mendelssohn at the last concert of the new group’s inaugural season. Don’t miss the second season next summer.

August 3, 2015
4 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 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

Surely the greatest and happiest surprise of this summer’s music season is the sudden emergence of the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), a group of mostly string players that almost seems to have popped up out of the ground spontaneously.

Willy Street Chamber Players logo

They have introduced themselves in four concerts on successive Fridays this month—experimenting with shorter-length, one-hour programs, and giving three of them at 6 in the evening, and one family concert at Friday noon.

Each concert has drawn progressively larger audiences at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top) on Spaight Street, on the city’s near East Side.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Willy Street audience

Most important, the group involves a bevy of former University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music students who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who are simply brimming over with talent and with the joy of making music together.

Their final concert this season, on last Friday night, officially offered two works. As a “thank you” to the increasing number of sponsors and a swelling public, however, the group also gave a glowing performance of the Gavotte movement from the “Holberg” Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (below). (You can hear the tuneful Grieg played by a much larger and far less intimate chamber orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

edvard grieg

The Grieg prefaced their playing the first full-length work, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

As now properly recognized, the Bach concerto is a work for nine solo string players (three each of violins, violas, cellos — below top, second and third in that order respectively) with basso continuo from the harpsichord (below bottom).

The intricacy of the part writing, especially involving constant interaction of the six upper parts, is particularly well appreciated when one can actually watch the players, who presented the music with a splendid combination of dash and discipline. (And they solved the notorious problem of what to do with the two-chord middle “movement” by adding only the tiniest violin cadenza on the first chord—very sensible and responsible.)

Willy Street Bach violins

Wiily Street Bach violas

Willy Street Bach cellos

Willy Street Bach harpsichord Jason Kutz

The final, and larger, work on the program was the Octet in E-flat by Felix Mendelssohn. This is the creation of an astoundingly precocious 17-year-old genius, and by general agreement it is a virtual miracle of composition.

Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s recourse to such a demanding scoring was not without precedent. He composed this in 1825. At about the same time, in the years 1823-47, the violinist-composer Louis Spohr (below) wrote four “Double Quartets” opposing two discrete string quartets against each other.

Louis Spohr

And, quite frequently, in his writing Mendelssohn does adopt the same strategy, pitting two distinct groups against each other. But he also explores the possibilities of eight-part texture, rich in contrasting colors and contrapuntal invention. It both is, and is more than, a simplistic double quartet.

Our eight Willy Street players did position themselves (below) as two opposing string quartets — with the cellists out in front, for a novel emphasis on the bass line.

Wily Street Mendelssohn Octet

Once again, it was such a benefit to watch these players engage each other in so many different ways. And with what spirit! Here was the music of a teenage genius, played by eight young players who threw their youthful élan into their work with unbounded passion. Yet there was also discipline, and the most careful nuancing of each player’s lines.

I would say that this is possibly the best performance I have ever heard of this work, certainly in live concert—something up to the highest professional and artistic standards.

I find it difficult to express fully my excitement over the sudden creation of this marvelous pool of young musicians. They have made it clear that this was just their first season: they are planning to return next summer, with some possible activities in between.

For member biographies, news and other information, here is a link to the group’s website:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

With minimal promotion so far, based on simple word-of-mouth publicity, The Willies — as I call them — have already found a swelling and enthusiastic audience.

Madison’s lovers of highest-class chamber music should take note, support and attend. How can I say it better? They are simply fabulous! It is an enormous blessing to any community that is lucky enough to generate such players!


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players end their first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert of works by Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6.

July 30, 2015
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The new group The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — certainly the biggest and most successful music news story of this summer — will end its first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert on Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6 p.m.

Willy Street Brahms Sextet

The concert is at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, which has both a performance space with fine acoustics hall and plenty of free parking.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Admission is $12 for adults; $8 for students and seniors.

You could hardly ask for a better program, which features two undisputed masterpieces.

The first is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It is scored without violins but for lower strings and it is irresistible for its melodies and harmonies and especially for its driving energy and rhythm.

Bach1

The second work is the astonishing Octet -– really a double string quartet –- by Felix Mendelssohn (below) who composed it when he was only 16. It may well be Mendelsohn’s best work. It too is irresistible is its energy and melodies. It is thrilling and one of the quintessential chamber music works of all time! (You can hear the impetuous opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

mendelssohn_300

The Ear is going and so should you.

By all accounts, the inaugural season of the Willy Street Chamber Players -– which included everything from classic Handel, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak to new music by contemporary composers and a noon concert for families – has been a great success.

The fine playing — members also perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — was justly praised by many, and large audiences turned out.

Here is a link to a review The Ear did of the first concert:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/classical-music-the-ear-recommends-hearing-the-july-performances-by-the-new-east-side-group-the-willy-street-chamber-players-the-next-concert-is-tomorrow-at-noon/

It’s enough to make one hopeful about a second season for the group and to make one impatient to see the programs.

The Ear bets both are already in the works!


Classical music: Here is an outline of this summer’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. More details will follow soon. Plus, Wednesday night is the opening classical program of the FREE Concerts on the Square.

June 23, 2015
1 Comment

REMINDER: Wednesday night at 7 p.m. is the opening concert of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra‘s six FREE Concerts on the Square this summer. The program is classical and features Julian Rhee (below), the amazing 14-year-old violinist who has won several major concerto competitions, including those with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Alexander Glazunov, Piotor Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms. Members of the Madison Ballet will also be featured.

Here is a link to general information about Concerts on the Square:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

And here is a link to more information about Wednesday night’s program and soloist:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-1/

Julian Rhee with violin

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and asked if the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will take place this year.

TokenCreekentrance

TokenCreekbarn interior

The question is understandable. So far, there has been no news.

But the Token Creek Festival will indeed take place this summer.

The Ear just received information about some of the basic events that will happen. More details will follow and fill in the programs.

Here is the official press release:

“With its 2015 season somewhat uncertain after a difficult winter, the Token Creek Festival is pleased to announce this summer’s programs, running August 22-30 this year.

August 22 and 23: “Founders’ Recital — Beginnings Revisited.” 
The concert centers on works by Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by festival co-founders and co-artistic directors John and Rose Mary Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

August 25: “Paean to Place: Music and Nature and the Poetry of Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker.” The concert will feature
 pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) and soprano Lucy FitzGibbons. The program is done in collaboration with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, below bottom)

Ryan McCullough with piano

lorine niedecker

August 27: The Lydian String Quartet (below top) in works of Felix Mendelssohn, Lee Hyla (below bottom) and John Harbison.

Lydian String Quartet

Lee Hyla

August 29 and 30: Grand Finale featuring 
orchestral highlights of the high Baroque, including the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). (You can hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Bach1

More information about the festival will be forthcoming soon.

 


Classical music: What if Johann Sebastian Bach had composed more of his popular “Brandenburg” Concertos? What might they look like and sound like? The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and guest artists from Chicago explore that possibility this Friday night.

May 21, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Few pieces of Baroque music, or of any classical music in any style from any period for that matter, are more beloved than the six secular “BrandenburgConcertos that Johann Sebastian Bach (below) composed when he was seeking a court appointment.

Bach1

So what is one to make of a concert called “Brandenburg X” this Friday night by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below), a terrific early music ensemble that uses period instruments and  historically informed performance practices?

Does it mean “X” as in the alphabet or FX (a phonetic stand-in for fantasy-like special “effects”? Or does it mean 10 as in a number or sequence, or perhaps as used in algebra to represent an “unknown”?

Maybe all of those possibilities are correct.

If it sounds like something out of science fiction or something futuristic, well that isn’t far off the mark. That is because Brandenburg X is indeed experimental.

Madison Baroque Ensemble

The concert is this Friday night, May 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side, near Randall Elementary School.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

The performers are Peter Lekx and Marika Fischer Hoyt on baroque violas; Eric Miller, Phillip W. Serna and Russell Wagner on bass viols; Eric Miller and Anton TenWolde on Baroque cellos); Marilyn Fung on violone; and Emily J. Katayama and Max Yount on harpsichords.

Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble composite

Tickets are available at the door only: Admission is $20; $10 for students.

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and New Comma Baroque of Chicago (below) will explore Johann Sebastian Bach’s music for the Viola da Braccio, the Violoncello, and the Viola da Gamba.

New Comma Baroque

The program includes: Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051 (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom); Brandenburg Concerto “No. 12” (arranged by Bruce Haynes and Susie Napper); the Sonata in G Major, BWV 1027/1039, in an arrangement for 3 violas da gamba; the Concerto in C Major for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1061a; and the Brandenburg Concerto “No. 7” in C minor, BWV 1029, as arranged by Duncan Druce.

Here are some program-like comments written by performer Anton TenWolde (below):

“We are very excited about our collaboration with the New Comma Baroque, based in Evanston, Illinois. The program is entitled “Brandenburg X: J.S. Bach’s Exploration of the Viola da Braccio (arm viola), the Violoncello and the Viola da Gamba (leg viola).”

“The idea for this concert was conceived when several members of our two groups met last spring to perform the sixth Brandenburg concerto with the Bach Collegium of Fort Wayne, Indiana. We all said after that concert: “This is wonderful! We wish Bach would have written more for this combination of instruments.”

Well, of course he did not, so we opted for the next best thing: compositions Bach could have written or arranged for these lower string instruments (violas, violas da gamba, cello, violone and harpsichord, without violins).

The program is set around three “Brandenburg” concertos.

We start with a “real” Brandenburg Concerto, No. 6, BWV1051 for two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, violone and harpsichord. This is followed by an arrangement by Bruce Haynes, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 12” created for Montreal Baroque, completely based on compositions by J.S. Bach. It incorporates Bach’s arias “Nur jedem das Seine”, BWV163; “Lass mein Herz die Munze sein, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott“, BWV80; “Wie selig sind doch die, die Gott im Munde tragen”, and the Sinfonia from “Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fallt,” BWV18. It is scored for 2 cellos, 2 violas da gamba, and basso.

The last “Brandenburg” concerto (Number “7”) is scored as Brandenburg No. 6: two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord. It is based on the G minor sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV 1029) and was arranged by Duncan Druce.

Some may frown on the practice of arranging Bach’s works for different instrumentations, but it is good to remember that Bach frequently re-arranged his own work, and that of other composers. Numerous cantata movements show up in different places, in different arrangements, sometimes in different keys. In fact, movements of the first Brandenburg concerto show up in three different cantatas, and Bach adapted the fourth Brandenburg into a harpsichord concerto. So the precedent has been set by the great master himself.

In addition to the Brandenburgs we will be performing Bach’s Sonata in G-Major, BWV1027/1039 arranged for three bass viols. This work originated as a trio sonata for two flutes and basso continuo (BWV1039), which Bach recast as a solo sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV1027).

The program is rounded out with the Concerto for two Harpsichords, BWV1061a., as originally composed without an orchestral accompaniment.

-Anton TenWolde

anton tenwolde

For more information (608) 238-5126 or visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org or www.newcommabaroque.org.

Do you have a favorite “Brandenburg” Concerto?

The Ear wonders: Why doesn’t a compete cycle of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos get performed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Early Music Festival, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or the Madison Symphony Orchestra? It is an annual holiday treat every year in New York City from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — which uses modern instruments — and The Ear thinks it would be a big draw in Madison.

The Ear loves all of them, but especially prizes the busily virtuosic and exciting keyboard part in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

And you?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Celebrate the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach this Thursday morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. with radio host Rich Samuels and many local performers on WORT 89.9 FM radio.

March 19, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Hurry up! It’s time to set your alarm clocks and tune in your radio.

This Thursday morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on WORT-FM 89.9 FM, Madison’s community-sponsored radio station (below is a photo of WORT’s funky headquarters in Madison) will honor the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

WORT FM 89.9

What makes it special is that radio host Rich Samuels (below), who is also a sound engineer,  has recorded local performers — some prominent an professional, others more amateur — playing and singing works by Bach in their own homes and studios. He will premiere and feature those recordings during the special birthday broadcast.

Here is a link to the 1-minute promotional Samuels recently did for WORT.

http://www.wortfm.org/bachs-birthday-promo/

Rich Samuels WORT use this

You may recall that Samuels wrote earlier to The Ear to announce the performance possibilities, which I see as a wonderful way to take up where Wisconsin Public Radio faltered by canceling Bach Around the Clock after the departure of former music director Cheryl Dring for an Austin, Texas-based radio station.

Here is a link to the original post by and about Samuels’ project:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/classical-music-classical-music-host-rich-samuels-at-wort-fm-in-madison-wants-to-broadcast-recordings-by-local-performers-to-mark-j-s-bachs-birthday-on-march-21-2013/

And here is a link to the background about BATC 3 and the unfortunate decision abput BATC 4 by WPR:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/classical-music-wisconsin-public-radio-has-cancelled-bach-around-the-clock-4-for-march-2013-with-no-plans-for-a-future-revival/

BATC 3 2012 logo

BATC 3 Confident kids

And here is a link to live streaming from WORT, so you can use your smart phonek iPod, iPad or computer to listen to local Bach:

http://tunein.com/radio/WORT-Community-Radio-899-s21793/

WORT logo

And who might you expect to hear? Samuels recounted some of the local Bach fans whose recorded performances will be highlighted:

Writes Samuels (below): “You’ll hear some familiar voices on the promo (though not all of those whose performances will be heard.) I’m working up to the wire on this: the last music will not be recorded until Tuesday, March 19 on account of schedule conflicts (the last entry will be soprano Rachel Eve Holmes (below top) who, with oboist Kostas Tiliakos and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom), will be performing the aria “Sich ueben im Lieben” from the “Wedding” Cantata No. 202 (in a YouTube video at bottom).

The exact order of performers, Samuels adds, won’t be determined until the last minute.

Rachel Eve Holmes big

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

But the remaining performers include organist Bruce Bengston (Luther Memorial), pianists Renee Farley, Karlos Moser (below top) and Tim Adrianson; harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below middle), mezzo-soprano Kathy Otterson (below bottom, with pianist Michael Keller and a violinist to be determined when I see who shows up at a recording session at Christ Presbyterian); alto Ena Foshay (speaking on behalf of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble); saxophonists Dennis Simonson and Pete Ross.

BATC 3 Karlos Moser

BrandenburgsTrevor

Kathleen Otterson 2

I asked Rich Samuels, a transplanted Chicagoan, about how he came by the idea, the inspiration, if you will, for the local Bach celebration, which The Ear thinks is great and deserves a BIG SHOUT-OUT! as well as  donation to WORTs recent pledge drive.

Here is his answer: “This week’s effort is a belated sequel to the video piece I did on March 21, 1985 on Chicago’s WMAQ-TV on the occasion of Bach’s 300th birthday.

“My introduction to Bach (below) came as a kid when I went to the Wilmette (Illinois) Public Library and checked out the 3-LP box set of the Brandenburg Concertos issued in 1952 on the Westminster label. The performance was by the London Baroque Ensemble conducted by Karl Haas.

“I became enough of a Bach fan to make a pilgrimage in the spring of 1990 (during the waning days of the German Democratic Republic) to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, and the birthplace of Bach in Eisenach. I also stopped off at Sanssouci in Potsdam, where Bach, on a new-fangled fortepiano, improvised on the theme devised by Frederick the Great.”

Bach1

And since the results were so good for the first attempt in Madison, what about the future?

“Hopefully, I can do another Bach tribute next year, perhaps on the eve of his birthday when I have a show scheduled.

“It would be nice to find a multi-generational ensemble willing to perform the six Brandenburg concerti. And perhaps someone could also write a fugue, making use of the idioms and instruments of the 21st century.”

And what about those who can’t or won’t listen to the early broadcast this Thursday? asked The Ear who hopes the local performers will be rebroadcast, perhaps on another show, in a more popular time slot?

Samuels says: “I’ll eventually upload all of the specially recorded segments with local performers to my personal website, although that will probably take some time, given the list of uncompleted tasks that presently faces me.”

I hope he lets me know, because then I will pass on word to you.

In any case, here is a link to his website with its extensive index:

http://www.richsamuels.com

So tune in and drop in and help celebrate the 328th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach – the Big Bang of Western classical music!


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