The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open a new season with an impressive program impressively played

July 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

Last Friday night, the six Willy Street Chamber Players (below) opened their third summer season at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

And once again, even though The Willys are relative newcomers, it is hard for The Ear to imagine a more perfect or more enjoyable concert.

The large and enthusiastic audience (below), which has grown considerably over the past two years, seemed to agree, judging by the standing ovations, loud applause and overheard comments.

So what made The Willys’ concert so great and so enjoyable?

Start with the basics

It was summery and informal. Shorts, T-shirts and sandals felt entirely appropriate.

It wasn’t expensive. A $15 ticket seems very affordable compared to what so many other local groups charge.

It wasn’t too long. They played just three pieces – two short and one long — that lasted under 80 minutes. That way you can enter the zone; concentrate hard and focus while you stay in the zone; and then leave the zone for good with time to do other things, including attend the post-performance reception with cookies, ice cream and coffee.

Spoken informal introductions to the pieces – each given by a different player – served as program notes, and they were kept short and to the point. (Below is cellist Mark Bridges humorously explaining the complicated love life of Brahms and how it affected his composing the string sextet.)

The playing itself was exemplary. (It featured the six core members plus guest violinist Suzanne Beia, below front left, of the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

The Ear detected no sour notes, no false starts or stops, no uncertain passages or interpretation. The well-rehearsed Willys played with precision as well as heart.

The program was typical Willy fare. It mixed short and long, old and new.

The old classics were two: Hugo Wolf’s charming “Italian Serenade” for string quartet (below) and with the String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, by Johannes Brahms, a long piece that received an energetic and thoroughly compelling reading.

But the star of the evening for The Ear came first: Jennifer Higdon‘s string quartet setting and contemporary take on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The riffs on the familiar tune by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (below) was new to The Ear and proved completely engaging, unmistakably modern-sounding yet accessible. (You can hear the Higdon work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Higdon string quartet (below) recalled an American tradition of using religious music for non-religious purposes. Think of how Charles Ives and Aaron Copland used old hymns and camp meeting songs, the most famous being Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

To be honest, a lot of new music just doesn’t speak to The Ear or reach him emotionally. It often makes him feel superfluous.

But The Willys have a knack for picking the right kind of new music that captures and holds The Ear’s attention, including the String Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass, the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain and “Entr’acte” for string quartet by Caroline Shaw.

It is a gift The Ear hopes they keep as they choose other contemporary composers and new music to perform with tried-and-true classics.

And if you want to hear more, you can go to The Willys’ website for details about the two remaining concerts this summer plus a FREE family-friendly Community Connect appearance at the east side Goodman Center from noon to 1 p.m. this Saturday. There they will play the works by Caroline Shaw and Daniel Bernard Roumain as well as “Tango for Four” by Astor Piazzolla and the Viola Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. (NOTE: An earlier mistake here and on the Willys’ website listed the String Sextet by Brahms rather than the Viola Quintet.)

The Willys complete the regular subscription season with performances at Immanuel Lutheran on two Fridays, July 21 (with music by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich) and July 28 (with music by Franz Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Both performances are at at 6 p.m.

For more details about the performers and the programs, here is a link:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

But if you do, you should know that Madison’s classical music documentarian and chronicler, Rich Samuels (below), is recording all the concerts to play this fall on his Thursday morning radio program “Anything Goes” on WORT-FM 89.9. Stay tuned for more information about air times.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players kick off their new FREE Community Connect concert series this coming Sunday afternoon at Warner Park. Plus, FREE oboe and piano concerts are this Friday at noon and Saturday night

February 16, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features oboist Laura Medisky and pianist Vincent Fuh in sonatas by Paul Hindemith, Henri Dutilleux and Malcolm Arnold. The concert runs from 12:125 to 1 p.m. On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the same performers will repeat the same program in a FREE concert at Oakwood Village West auditorium, 6201 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), which The Ear named as Musicians of the Year for 2016, write:

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

We wanted to let you know about the upcoming kickoff of the Willy Street Chamber Players’ “Community Connect” series. We are committed to our mission of making classical music accessible to all.

The Willy Street Chamber Players’ Northside Community Connect Concert is on this coming Sunday, Feb. 19, at noon at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center.

Warner Park shelter

Enjoy hot coffee, exciting classical music and great conversation with the Willy Street Chamber Players. 

This program is FREE, family-friendly and will last about 60 minutes. All are welcome.

The program is: String Quartet in C Major, K. 157, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; String Quartet No. 5, “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain; “Entr’acte” for String Quartet by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (you can hear the piece, which The Ear loves for its pulsing and hypnotic rhythm plus unusual and interesting string textures, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Four, for Tango” by Astor Piazzolla.

There was an announcement about this series in the January string quartet program at A Place to Be (below, in a photo by John W. Barker), and it included a couple more concerts. But we have decided to make Community Connect a self-produced series.

willy-street-chamber-players-at-a-place-to-be-jan-2017-cr-jwb

We are planning a second Community Connect concert in July during our regular summer series, and have listed our other free appearances on our regular calendar.

The concert is made possible in part by Willy Street Co-Op and the North/Eastside Senior Coalition (NESCO).

For more information go to: www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Willy Street Chamber Players logo


Classical music: The Ear names The Willy Street Chamber Players as “Musicians of the Year” for 2016

December 30, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

It can’t be easy to start a new classical music group in a city that already has so many outstanding classical music groups and events.

Yet that is exactly what The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) have done – and with remarkable success.

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

To be honest, The Ear thought of awarding the same honor to them last year.

But that was their inaugural year. And launching a new enterprise is often easier than continuing and sustaining it.

But continue and sustain it they have – and even improved it.

The main season for The Willy Street Players is in July,, usually around noon or 6 p.m.

But they also usually offer a preview concert in the winter, and will do so again at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, and Sunday, Jan. 22, when they will perform string quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Astor Piazzolla and Daniel Bernard Roumain at A Place to Be, 911 Williamson Street. Admission is $20.

Willy Street Chamber Players string quartet cr JWB

For tickets and more information about that concert as well as the group in general, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

The Ear finds so much to like about The Willy Street Chamber Players.

To start, the quality of the playing of the mostly string players and pianists — most of whom are products of the UW-Madison — is unquestionably superb. So are their guest artists such as Suzanne Beia. They have never disappointed The Ear, and others seem to agree. 

Willy Street audience

The programming is ideal and adventurous, combining beloved classics, neglected works and new music from contemporary composers. And it all seems to fit together perfectly.

The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from the Baroque era through the Classical, Romantic and modernist eras to today. They have performed an impressively eclectic  mix of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky, Pietro Mascagni, Arnold Schoenberg, George Crumb, Philip Glass, Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw and UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger

The concerts are very affordable.

The concerts are short, usually running only about an hour or 75 minutes. That allows you both to fully focus or concentrate on the performance but then also to do something else with your precious leisure time.

The group of sonic locavores stays true to its name and mission, playing at various venues on or near Williamson Street on Madison’s near east side – including the Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) on Spaight Street and at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on Jenifer Street. But they have also collaborated with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Willy Street Mozart Ave

At the post-concerts receptions, they even offer outstanding snack food from local purveyors in the Willy Street area. And it’s there that you can also meet the performers, who are fun, informative and congenial whenever they talk to the public, whether before and after a performance.

Willy Street snacks 2016

Most of all, The Ear has never heard anything dull or second-rate from the Willy Street Chamber Players. They are a fantastic breath of fresh air who invest their performances of even well-known works, such as the glorious Octet by Mendelssohn, with energy and drive, zest and good humor.

They are exactly what classical music – whether chamber music or orchestral music, choral or vocal music –needs to attract new and younger audiences and well as the usual fans. They have just the right balance of informality and professionalism.

The many musicians, all of them young, work hard but make the results seem easy. That is the very definition of virtuosity. Small wonder that many of them play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians among other groups. But this group seems special to them, and it shows.

If you don’t already know the Willy Street Chamber Players, you should get to know them. You should attend their concerts and, if you can, support them. They are a new gem, and constitute an outstanding and invaluable addition to Madison’s music scene.

NOTE: The Ear offers one piece of advice to The Willy Street Chamber Players: Since he can’t find a sample of you in action, please post some of your outstanding performances, which have been recorded by radio host Rich Samuels and broadcast on WORT-FM 89.9, on YouTube. The public needs a way to hear them and whet its appetite for your live performances.

Willy Street Chamber Players logo

In any case, The Ear wishes them well and hopes that, despite the inevitable personnel changes that will surely come in the future, The Willy Street Chamber Players stay on the Madison music scene for many years to come.

The Ear sends his best wishes for the New Year and another great season, the group’s third, to The Willy Street Chamber Players as Musicians of the Year for 2016.

 


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open their second promising season with another dazzling concert of music by Mascagni, Tchaikovsky and Caroline Shaw.

July 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

You had to be there to believe it.

That’s just how good the Willy Street Chamber Players are. (Actually, this season the music is being streamed live, so you don’t have to be there, and Rich Samuels of WORT-FM 89.9 recorded this concert for later airing.)

The Willys, as critic John W. Barker of Isthmus likes to call them, set themselves a high bar to clear, given the spectacular debut they made last summer in a series of July concerts that propelled them to the top of the list of classical music news in the area for the entire season.

The Ear is happy to report that in last Friday night’s opening concert of their second season, the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) met and surpassed that bar.

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

There was really only one small disappointment: Despite promises to bring the concert in with enough time to allow people to get over the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition at the UW-Madison, they ran late.

But at least they tried. And an effort at cooperation seems in perfect keeping with the nature of this outstanding ensemble. So do the local post-concert treats of food and sweets they offer.

Willy Street snacks 2016

The concert started with a piece that reminds one how a beautiful melody sticks in the ear and is never out of date, no matter what some modernists say.

In this case, it was the Intermezzo from the Romantic opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880) by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, as arranged for string sextet by Beth Larson (below, front left), the group’s own violist and violinist. As a welcoming opener and mood-setter, it proved a sheer delight.

Willy Steet Mascagni 2016

Let’s jump to the end, which was a stupendous reading of the Big Work: the “Souvenir de Florence” (Memory of Florence) by Peter Tchaikovsky that featured guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below, front left).

Beia, you may recall, is a concertmaster with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as member of the Pro Arte Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. And this summer, she sizzled in her virtuosic reading of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi for the closing concerts of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. And boy, can she fiddle!

Willy Street Tchaikovsky 2016 with Suzanne Beia left

In the Tchaikovsky, there was plenty of lyricism. But the force and energy of the brisk, upbeat tempi kept the work from becoming the kind syrupy and repetitive sentimentalism that inferior Tchaikovsky playing can produce.

It was an exciting and dynamic, even thrilling, performance. The audience leapt to its feet with good reason.

But for The Ear, the standout piece was the centerpiece: the “Entr’acte” for string quartet (below) by the young American composer Caroline Shaw.

Willy Street Caroline Shaw 2016

This is The Ear’s kind of new music. Inspired by a minuet from an Op. 77 string quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn, Shaw’s work quietly pulsed and throbbed with a hypnotic rhythm. (You can hear a different performance of the work in a the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were some dissonances and some strange sounds made by rubbing strings as well as plucking and snapping strings. But overall this was new music that had melody, rhythm and harmony, and it proved accessible on the first hearing. Plus it was short and possessed both emotion and elegance. Eat your hearts out, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen!

The Ear hopes that the Willy Street Chamber Players continue their exploration of works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shaw (below) in future summer seasons and prove to be her ambassador to Madison audiences.

Caroline Shaw CR DASHON-BURTON

In any case, based on last season and now this concert the Ear has no reluctance in recommending the four concerts by the Willys that remain, three on Friday nights at 6 p.m. and one at noon.

NOTE: A word of warning is in order. Give yourself extra time to get there. Construction downtown plus major construction and street repairs on the streets around the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight St., pose obstacles.

Here is a link to the rest of the season:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

All The Ear can add is that last summer’s success was no fluke.

So let’s hear a Big Bravo for the fact that the Willys are Winners!


Classical music: Next Friday night starts the second season of the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players. This afternoon you can hear Norwegian music performed live at the Chazen Museum of Art

July 3, 2016
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ALERT: The Ear reminds you that TODAY is the monthly “Sunday Live From the Chazen” chamber music concert. The program today features UW-Madison soprano Mimmi Fulmer, violinist Tyrone Greive  (retired concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and pianist Michael Keller in music by Edvard Grieg and other Norwegian composers, including songs and sonatas. The live concert starts at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery 3. Admission is FREE. You can also stream it live by using this link:

http://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-july-3-with-mimmi-fulmer-michael-keller-and-tyrone-gr

By Jacob Stockinger

Probably the premiere musical event of 2015 was the summer debut of the new group the Willy Street Chamber Players (below).

Willy Street Chamber Players 2016 outdoors

The critics and audiences agreed: The programs and performances were simply outstanding. Many of the players perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, there Middleton Community Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians and other acclaimed local groups.

Now the second season of five concerts – including one noontime lunch concert — will begin on this coming Friday night, July 8, at 6 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Immanuel Lutheran interior

The first program features regular members and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below).

Beia plays second violin in the Pro Arte Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and also serves at concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In addition, she performs in the Rhapsodie Quartet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

suzanne beia

The program includes the lovely “Souvenir of Florence” (1892) by Peter Tchaikovsky and the haunting Entr’acte for String Quartet (2011) by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a  photo by Dashon Burton). You can hear the Entr’acte in the YouTube video at the bottom. (The Ear hopes one day the group will do Shaw’s “By and By” with strings and a vocalist.)

Caroline Shaw CR DASHON-BURTON

It’s too bad that the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition is on the same night. You would hope that such conflicts could be avoided in the summer.

Theoretically you can make it to both concerts since the aria competition starts at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. But it will probably be a hectic scurry from one to the other.

Here is a link to more information about the Handel Aria Competition:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/classical-music-handel-aria-competition-announces-2016-finalists-to-sing-next-thursday-night/

In any case, here is the schedule of the entire second season of the Willy Street Chamber Players.

It is varied and impressive, especially in how it combines old masterpieces with modern and contemporary works. It features pieces by Philip Glass, Arnold Schoenberg, UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger, George Crumb, Dmitri Shostakovich, Franz Schubert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arcangelo Corelli and Georges Enescu :

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/events1.html

A season subscription is $50. Individual concerts are $15 except for the Black Angels video art concert, which is $20.


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