The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players offer an appetizing preview of its second summer season with masterful performances of string quartets by Mozart, Webern, Shostakovich and Philip Glass. Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet concert on Feb. 3 has been CANCELLED

January 26, 2016
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ALERT: The concert on next Wednesday night, Feb. 3, by the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Pro Arte Quartet has been CANCELLED due to an injury of one of its players.

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. Barker also took the performance photo.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Willy Street Chamber Players have already awakened us to Madison’s East Side as a promising new locale of our musical life. And in presenting their program in A Place to Be, the old store converted into a conversation haven at 911 Williamson Street, they have given us further reminder of that area’s lively community life and activities.

On last Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Willys offered an hour-long program, admission-free but by reservation. (I attended the Saturday performance.)

The small space was certainly the kind of intimate venue ideal for music by string quartet: indeed, it made for virtually an in-your-face confrontation.

Four members (below) of the Willys’ core ensemble were on hand. Violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari (alternating in second and first chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges made up a well-balanced string quartet.

Willy Street Chamber Players string quartet cr JWB

Their program of four works displayed anew the level of enthusiastic music-making these players have set for themselves, but also of their wide-ranging mix of repertoire.

The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved Serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). As first violinist, Bartsch – who won honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — set an exuberant tone for what became a newly fresh masterpiece.

The second work, Anton Webern’s early Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), can sometimes seem too extended for its 9-minute length. But these players imparted a forward-moving pulse to its heavily Late Romantic character that made it a lovely experience. And I must say that Larson made me aware for the first time of just how significant a role the viola part has in holding together the dense texture.

The contemporary American composer Philip Glass (below) is inevitably typecast as the arch-exponent of minimalist repetition. His 9-minute String Quartet No. 2 “Company” certainly reflects such techniques, but its four short movements allow a dispersion of their effects without making them unwelcome.

I found myself impressed, too, at least by Glass’s awareness of the characters of the four instruments—their different ranges and potentials for interaction. (You can hear Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 performed by Brooklyn Rider in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Phlip Glass 2015

Finally, Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15-minute, four-movement String Quartet No. 1, dating from 1938, revealed a composer enjoying energy and affirmation, with only traces of the deeper, darker, more introverted writing that would come about in his subsequent 13 quartets. Particularly striking was the nostalgic second movement, largely dominated by the viola, the role of which Larson brought off to eloquent perfection.

These two concerts served as mid-season reminders of the projected second summer season by the ensemble (below), to come in July. Full announcement of its program details and other news will come in a week or so. But the teasing hints about the repertoire ahead sounded fascinating. I, for one, found my mouth watering at many of them.

Willy Street Chamber Players group color

So you are all on notice, then, that this exciting ensemble, bursting with youthful talent, will once again bring special novelty and artistry to another summer’s musical life.


Classical music Q&A: Wu Man talks about the Chinese pipa, which she will play with the prize-winning and critically acclaimed The Knights chamber orchestra for the Wisconsin Union Theater this coming Saturday night.

February 4, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amid so much local competition, the veteran and venerable Wisconsin Union Theater is trying to adapt to the times and the public’s desires.  One strategy, used by music presenters nationwide, that it is pursuing is to widen the audience appeal to younger people, especially University of Wisconsin students, by broadening the definition of classical music and to blend in world music, which attracts big audiences. (It is also deliberately keeping prices down.)

So what could be more classical and yet, at the same time, more exotic and novel than the ancient Chinese instrument, the pipa (below).

pipa

It has been undergoing a revival in the West, largely thanks to the prize-winning and critically acclaimed virtuoso Wu Man (below). She has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. At the bottom, you can hear a YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert she performed at the studios of NPR.

Wu Man  horizontal

You can hear the results for yourself this Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall (the hall the Wisconsin Union Theater is using while it undergoes renovation).

Wu Man will perform as soloist with the highly acclaimed and prize-winning chamber orchestra from Brooklyn, New York, The Knights (below). The group of young New York musicians, praised for its revelatory and energetic readings of Ives, Copland, Mozart and Schubert and others, has also just released an all-Beethoven CD, with the Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 5, on Sony Classics.

Here is a link to the group’s website:

http://www.theknightsnyc.com

the knights 1

The program, which the same players will perform this Thursday night in Manhattan, includes some more traditional classics from the Western classical music canon. They include the Neo-classical “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto  by Igor Stravinsky (below, in a photo by Richard Avedon).

igor stravinsky portrait

Then two early 20th-century French works will be performed: the sensuous “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below top) and the jazzy score for “The Ox on the Roof” by Darius Milhaud (below bottom).

claude debussy 2

darius milhaud

Wu Man will solo in the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra and Pipa by 20th-century American composer Lou Harrison (below) and Wu Man’s own composition “Blue and Green.”

Lou Harrison

Tickets run $10 for UW students to $25, with parking available for an extra fee.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s website about the concert with ticket information, reviews, links to related sites and even a video clip:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season12-13/the-knights-wu-man.html

Wu Man recently granted an email Q&A to The Ear:

Wu Man 1

What is the pipa and how would you describe its sound and explain the way one plays it?

The pipa is a lute-like (four-stringed) instrument with a 2,000 year-old history. It sounds almost like a combination of guitar, banjo, mandolin, lute and ud, etc. It is plucked with the right hand’s five fingers, and has a rich sound quality and is capable of many different music styles.

In what way is the pipa a “classical” instrument in Asia? Why is it important for Westerners to become acquainted with it?

The pipa was introduced to China 2,000 years ago from Central Asia. The Chinese took thousands of years to make this Central Asian ‘lute.’ It is a part of the world string plucking instrument family. If you like learning about the music and culture from the east part of the globe, then the pipa is the one of the main traditional musical instruments you can study.

To me it really doesn’t matter if you are Westerners or Easterners, we are all living on the same globe. It is important to know each other’s culture. Just like the pipa –- music came from the same roots, and is traveling to other places. If you isolate yourself in your own zone, that would be a pity because you are missing so many wonderful things on the other part of the earth. And perhaps you will be OUT of today’s modern society soon.

Wu Man vertical

How successfully does it blend with Western style classical music?

As I mentioned, music is the human being’s natural language and it can blend in many ways. I am still looking for the different possibilities. So far the pipa has worked perfectly with western chamber ensembles, orchestras, and of course other members of plucked string family as well. Actually the pipa could blend with any musical style and art form such as jazz, electronic, theater, dance, multi-media…on and on…

What has been the reaction of American and European audiences to you and the pipa?

The audiences are always enthusiastic about my music and fascinated about the pipa’s unique style. I have been touring with a variety of projects — solo recitals and as well as chamber ensembles, string quartets, pipa concerto with orchestras, and theater performances. I have collaborated with dancers, singers, and visual artists.

I would like to bring the pipa to different musical genres, to explore the possibilities of this ancient Chinese instrument. And I want to see in the future that the pipa will be available to the world and become a member of the 21st-century musical family.


Classical music: Here are 7 reasons why Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society is Big League and The Ear can’t wait for their next season.

July 3, 2012
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A REMINDER: Tonight (July 3) at 7 p.m. in Olbrich Gardens, on Madison’s far east side, the Youth Orchestra (below) of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, will perform a free concert. (A $1 donation is suggested to benefit the gardens.) The concert is a preview of the group’s concert tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest July 7-17.

By Jacob Stockinger

Every fall, concert-goers look forward to the opening of The New Season by such big-name local classical music groups as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the University of Wisconsin School of Music – to name just a few of the most prominent.

Over many years, those seasons have become recognizable landmarks in our cultural landscape.

But more than ever, The Ear is convinced that that same kind of reception, that same excitement and anticipation, should await the annual three-week summer season of Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below, pianist Jeffrey Sykes, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor ).

With no more than six or eight players on the stage at any one time, BDDS is a small group that makes big and beautiful music.

Between June 15 and July 1, BDDS played six programs in four different venues, and once again proved remarkable for the quality of its programs, performers, performances, venues and audiences.

Everything it did showed that BDDS is indeed Big League, despite being a modestly sized chamber music ensemble and despite performing after the close of the main concert season and the arrival of The Heat of Summer.

So after thinking about the four programs I heard in the past three weeks, let me offer seven reasons why BDDS deserves gets my respect and support, and deserves yours. (You can help by attending, but also by going to the donation site www.power2give.org  and to BDDS’ home page: www.bachdancinganddynamite.org)

1. BDDS takes chances and risks, and so succeeds in allowing listeners to have fun with serious music. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

BDDS advertises itself as offering “Chamber Music with a Bang.” And they mean it.

Sometimes they do it through sheer affability and cordiality. Sometimes they do it through the doors prizes, which this season ran from a gift card for cocktails to homemade pies. Sometimes they use an unusual Mystery Guest like the Yiddish singer Henry Saposnik or the Madison Hoop Team or a black leather jacket cello duo (below) furiously playing a Michael Jackson song.

But even the music they play takes chances. BDDS did its own arrangement (below) of Stravinsky’s popular and jauntily tuneful neo-Classical “Suite Italienne” or “Pucinella Suite,” which is normally heard in a violin and piano arrangement. They used eight players and turned it into a kind of modern-day Brandenburg Concerto, a Baroque concerto grosso in which each “section” or individual got a chance to show off – including twirling two cellos and mixing the modern grand piano and the harpsichord in the same program. Guess what? It all worked superbly. And it is completely within the aesthetic that Stravinsky was shooting for. Igor would be pleased.

2. BDDS gets you to hear music you otherwise wouldn’t hear.

There were many examples this season. Some of my favorites are the orchestral miniatures. They included Salomon’s chamber arrangements of Haydn’s late symphonies, of which they have done three out of 12. (This year’s offering, below, was Symphony No. 85, “La Reine.”) Then there was the Hummel’s similar arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor. And when was the last time you heard a complete Couperin Suite?

3. BDDS plays masterpieces masterfully. All the untraditional shtick and stuff could serve to compensate for other shortcomings. But that is decidedly NOT the case with the BDDS. If you heard the BDDS perform Schubert’s sublime Cello Quintet or Brahms’ driving Piano Quintet in F Minor (below), you heard fiery and committed as well as subtle performances that rival or surpass any performances you will hear live and even recorded.

BDDS doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks or make any excuses. Just because it chooses to stray from the beaten path doesn’t mean it isn’t a first-rate guide to take you down that beaten path and let you see – and hear – new things about old and familiar music.

4. BDDS takes the music – NOT themselves – seriously and teaches the audience new things.

We went to hear the rarely performed “The Apotheosis of Lully” by Couperin, and ended up getting a mini-lesson in the French Baroque style versus the Italian Baroque style. And pianist Jeffrey Sykes hammed it up just right as the pseudo-pious narrator (below left). The audience listened, laughed and learned.

5. BDDS gets away from the celebrity culture of the contemporary classical music scene and brings us great artists from outside whose names are unknown.

Sure, you can pay $100 or more to hear superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman or cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But I’ll take BDDS. I don’t think any local group does a better job of finding and presenting low-profile but absolutely first-rate musicians than BDDS.

Here are some examples: Harpsichordist Layton James (below) was the principal harpsichordist of the renowned St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for an astonishing 41 years (1969-2010). Animated violinist Carmit Zori founded and directs the Brooklyn, New York Chamber Music Society. San Francisco-based violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau joined pianist Jeffrey Sykes in piano trios performances that are consistently outstanding. Percussionists Dane Richeson (from Lawrence University in Appleton) is as interesting and accomplished to me as the world-famous Evelyn Glennie. And you won’t find a better piano partner than Randall Hodgkinson from the New England Conservatory of music.

And this year The Ear finally got his wish: To hear BDDS co-founder and co-director pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below) perform a solo work, Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 49. There is no better ensemble pianist than Sykes, but I hope we get to hear him in some solos again in future seasons.

6. BDDS is refreshingly unapologetic and candid in its down-to-earth approach. Because they have fun, we feel we can have fun.

Co-founder and co-director flutist Stephanie Jutt publicly admitted one night that she herself gets bored when she goes to concerts and all there is to watch are the musicians. Wow! She is just like a lot us!

So BDDS commissions on-stage installations and backgrounds to maintain audience interest. They get local artists from the UW-Madison — Carolyn Kallenborn, Teresa Getty and Michael Villequette – to design and construct wondrously beautiful and inexpensive sets of that can be subtlety changed with lights, with little trinkets like plastic glasses and cut-outs, and with pieces of abstract dyed fabric to match different concerts, different moods and different works. The effect is original, welcoming and civilized.

7. BDDS is militantly eclectic and likes to mix it up. You won’t find purism or snobbery here!

Consider just the range of repertoire: from the 18th century, they played works by Couperin, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; from the 19th century, works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky; from the 20th century, works by Bartok, Barber, Bernstein, Rorem, Jolivet and Stravinsky; and from the 21st century, a piece by Kenji Bunch.

Put it all together and you realize that, as I said in another recent post, when you go to one BDDS concert, you always end up wanting to hear others.

I can’t wait for next June and BDDS’ 22nd season next summer.

And neither should you.

Do you have COMMENTS to leave about any BDDS programs you heard this season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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