The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates the legacy and works of Leonard Bernstein

November 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) will be remembered, honored and celebrated by his friend and Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain in a “Remembering Lenny” concert that explores Bernstein’s musical contributions as an American composer and conductor.

Original works by Bernstein will be performed by the MSO on the first half of the concert. The MSO starts with the Overture to Candide, then moves on to On The Town, and, finally, performs his Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” featuring Van Cliburn Competition bronze medal winner and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor.

The second half of the program features Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the last work that Bernstein (1918-1990) ever conducted during a concert at the summer Tanglewood Festival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on this Friday night, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday night, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket information is below.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson): “To have my 25th anniversary with the MSO coincide with the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth is special for me personally because of the unique opportunities I had to work with this great American musician.” 

DeMain, who premiered Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place” in Houston, adds: “The first half of the concert celebrates Lenny the composer, culminating in the first performance by the MSO of his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, which has a dazzling and at times jazzy part for the piano, and carries with it, still, a timely social statement. Christopher Taylor (below), a Madison favorite with whom I have often enjoyed collaborating, will perform the challenging and exciting piano part.”

DeMain describes the final work in the program: “The second half of the concert pays tribute to Lenny the conductor, and his life-long love of Beethoven. Since the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, was the last piece Lenny conducted, I thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate Lenny and his great contribution to American musical life.” (NOTE: You can hear Bernstein conduct the famous second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 during his last public performance, just two months before he died, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is some more background:

Bernstein’s operetta Candide is based on the 1759 novella by French philosopher Voltaire. The well-known Overture is quick-paced, with a feverish excitement that begins from the first breath of sound. Many of the meters are in seven beats, or of other non-traditional types, and quickly change. Each player of the ensemble is required to perform with simultaneously the utmost virtuosity and togetherness.

On the Town is a dance-centric musical scored by Leonard Bernstein based on Jerome Robbins’ idea for the 1944 ballet “Fancy Free.” The story depicts three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during wartime, where each man meets and quickly connects with the woman of their dreams. The musical is the source of the ubiquitously popular show tune New York, New York.

The Age of Anxiety was composed between 1948 and 1949, and is inspired by a poem of the same name by W.H. Auden (below). The 80-page poem follows four lonely strangers who meet in a wartime New York bar and spend the evening ruminating on their lives and the human condition. Subtitled “a baroque eclogue” (a pastoral poem in dialogue form), the characters speak mostly in long soliloquies of alliterative tetrameter, with little distinction among the individual voices.

Composed from 1811–1812, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered with Beethoven (below) himself conducting in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau.

The symphony’s dance elements, vitality and sense of celebration are conveyed principally through rhythm. It is not the melodies that are so striking and memorable as the general sense of forward movement.

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

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

Program notes for the concerts are available online. Go to: http://bit.ly/nov2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/bernstein\through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-Ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 2018-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsor for the November concerts is Steinhauer Charitable Trust. Underwriting for Christopher Taylor is provided by Sharon Stark, “to Peter Livingston with love.” Major funding is provided by: Stephen D. Morton, The Gialamas Company, Inc., Myrna Larson, Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Nancy Mohs. Additional funding is provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields, Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., and Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Posted in Classical music
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