The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society closes its 28th season this weekend by honoring three guest artists. Plus, here are all the winners of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition

June 28, 2019
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ALERT: The Ear has been following two competitors in the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia who have local ties. (The only American to win Gold was cellist Zlatomir Fung.) The final results are in: trumpet player Ansel Norris took fifth place and received an artist’s diploma; pianist Kenneth Broberg shared the third prize with two other winners. For a complete list of winners in all the categories — piano, violin, cello, voice, brass and woodwinds — go to this page: https://tch16.com/en/news/

You can also watch and listen to, via live streaming, the two Gala Concerts for the winners today at 11 a.m. and on Saturday at 1 a.m. Valery Gergiev will conduct both. Go to https://tch16.medici.tv

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will close out its 28th annual summer chamber music season with concerts in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green.

Judging by the first two weekends of concerts, The Ear expects it to be a memorable conclusion of the season with the punning theme of “Name Dropping.”

Here is the announcement he received.

“Our third week of concerts celebrates three great musicians, all of whom are audience favorites: cellist couple Anthony (“Tony”) Ross and Beth Rapier; and firebrand violinist Carmit Zori.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” is a program centered around cello duets. Rapier and Ross (below), principal and co-principal cellists with the Minnesota Orchestra, start the program with George Frideric Handel’s gorgeous Sonata in G minor for two cellos and piano. (You can hear the Handel sonata, payed by Amit Peled in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They both display crazy virtuosity in Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in B-flat Major for flute, violin, viola and two cellos.

The first half ends with Gian Carlo Menotti’s Suite for two cellos and piano, a work that they have performed to acclaim around the world.

The second half of the program is given over to one of Brahms’ greatest works, the Sextet in G Major, Op. 36, for two violins, two violas and two cellos.

Ross and Rapier are joined by violinists Carmit Zori and Leanne League (assistant concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) and violists Toby Appel (below, a faculty member at the Juilliard School who plays in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) and Katrin Talbot (a Madisonian who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) in this spectacular piece.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin on Sunday, June 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Firebrand violinist Carmit Zori (below), founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society in New York City, will sizzle her way through the second program, entitled “The Legend of Zori.”

The program will open with Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in G Major for violin and piano. Viaje, by living Chinese composer Zhou Tian, is a fun and exciting new piece featuring flute and string quartet.

Zori will bring the program home with the torridly passionate Piano Quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck (below), a work written while Franck was in the throes of a love affair with one of his young students.

“The Legend of Zori” will be performed at The Playhouse at the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, on Sunday, June 30, at 6:30 p.m.

Venue Locations: the Stoughton Opera House is at 381 East Main Street; the Overture Center in Madison is at 201 State Street; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Hillside Theater in on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Single admission tickets start are $43 and $49. Student tickets are always $10. All single tickets must now be purchased from Overture Center for the Arts, www.overturecenter.org or (608) 258-4141 (additional fees apply) or at the box office. Tickets are available at the door at all locations.

You can also enjoy a pre-ordered picnic at the Hillside Theater made with love from Pasture and Plenty, using ingredients from local farmers and producers. They are available for pick up at the Hillside Theater after the 2:30 p.m. concert or before the 6:30 p.m. concert, for $18.

Spread a blanket on the beautiful Hillside Theater grounds or eat in the Taliesin Architecture School Dining Room, which will be open exclusively to BDDS concert-goers.

Choose from Green Goddess Chicken Salad, Market Veggie Quiche with Greens, or Hearty Greens and Grains with Seasonal Veggie Bowl (gluten-free/vegan). Seasonal sweet treat and beverage included. See the BDDS order form or call BDDS at 608 255-9866.


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Classical music: Looking for serious fun? The thoroughly successful opening concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society bode well for the upcoming second weekend

June 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

After 28 summers, going to a concert by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society still feels like attending a family reunion – the best kind of family reunion where everyone is familiar and friendly, where everything is fun, and where you always leave glad that you went.

That’s not by chance.

The first thing that co-founders and co-artistic directors Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes did last Friday and Saturday nights was to thank the loyal audience. And the audience, full of longtime fans, returned the favor by being attentive to and appreciative of the first-rate music-making as well as responsive to the horseplay and antics – such as the surreal scene of virtuoso Axel Strauss playing “The Skater’s Waltz” on his violin while rollerblading around the stage (below).

BDDS players really mean it when they say that their audiences are in for something different, something they won’t find elsewhere and won’t forget.

Last weekend that meant the return of two longtime guest performers: San Francisco cellist Jean-Michael Fonteneau and Montreal violinist Axel Strauss (below, with pianist Jeffrey Sykes). Neither disappointed as they performed very varied music by Franz Joseph Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Faure, Lili Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Ned Rorem. And as always, the amazing  pianist Jeffrey Sykes proved a chameleon who blended masterfully into the style of each period and each composer.

But for The Ear, the unexpected standout last weekend was guest accordion player Stas Venglevski from Milwaukee. Born in Russia and trained at the Moscow Conservatory, he is a virtuoso player, a sensitive arranger and a convincing composer – all done with good humor and a charismatic stage presence.

The Ear never thought of the accordion – the Russian bayan, to be specific – as an instrument for chamber music. But he does now, after hearing Venglevski play serious Russian, French and Latin American music that ran the gamut from a graceful waltz and a sprightly polka to torchy tangos. And then there were his flying fingers punching out “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a real crowd-pleaser.

The large audience responded on both nights with wild applause and a standing ovation every time that Venglevski (below) played, and Jutt promised the audience that he will be back.

“As you can see, we have fun here,” Jutt deadpanned.

She is not exaggerating.

Which bodes well for the second weekend of three that will happen this coming weekend.

The second weekend — two programs in three venues — celebrates Jutt and Sykes, plus two of BDDS’ favorite guest artists: violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio and Madison pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Kasdorf (below) and Sykes are both featured in a program called “Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah.” Kasdorf is featured in Brahms’ Horn Trio with guest horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, and in the appealing and accessible Café Concertino by the contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine.

Sykes will perform another chamber transcription of a Classical-era symphonic work, which over the years has become a welcome specialty of BDDS. In this case it is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s snappy and appealing Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271, the “Jeunehomme” concerto. (You can hear the irresistible last movement of the piano concerto, used in the film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Sykes will also perform in Robert Schumann’s “Fairy Tales” for clarinet and viola.

A Madison native, cellist Alison Rowe (below) — an artist from the Dynamite Factory, which is BDDS’ program for emerging talent — will be featured in the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Rock the Sykes-o-delic Kas-bah” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 21, at 7:30 p.m. Braisin’ Hussies Food Cart will be parked outside the Opera House prior to the performance. The program will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m.

Jutt (below top) and Sant’Ambrogio (below bottom, in a photo by Stephanie Ann Boyd) worm their musical way into the most unexpected places in the other program, “Steph Infection.” The Nocturne for flute, violin, horn and piano of Franz Doppler opens the program, which continues with Jutt’s own arrangement of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “American” String Quartet, with a flute substituting for one of the two violins.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for flute, clarinet and piano add spice to the program, and the evening concludes with Ernst von Dohnanyi’s epic Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. A work that ranges from stormy and turbulent to tender and funny, it features an all-star cast including audience favorite clarinetist Alan Kay, horn player Karl Kramer Johansen, violist Carol Cook (principal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and Madison’s own cellist of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet, Parry Karp (below).

“Steph Infection” will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m.

And of course there could also be some unannounced surprises – more door prizes, perhaps a mystery guest, or more shenanigans and antics that correspond to the “Name Dropping” pun theme of the programs.

For tickets ($43-$49) and more information, go to: https://bachdancing.org


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock marks Johann Sebastian’s 334th birthday next Saturday with a FREE 12-hour celebration. Here is the full schedule. Plus, Parry Karp plays all-French cello music on Thursday night

February 25, 2019
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ALERT: This coming Thursday night, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison cellist Parry Karp, of the Pro Arte Quartet, will perform a FREE all-French recital with longtime piano partner Eli Kalman of the UW-Oshkosh. The program includes the Cello Sonata by Claude Debussy; the Cello Sonata by Albéric Magnard; “Granada” from “Foreign Evenings” by Louis Vierne; and Cello Sonata No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saens. For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-parry-karp-cello-and-eli-kalman-piano-2/

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By Jacob Stockinger

The event is coming a couple of weeks earlier than the actual birthday on March 21.

But next Saturday, March 2, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., the annual Bach Around the Clock will celebrate the 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

At 10 p.m., there will even be a birthday cake for the birthday boy and for those who are still there celebrating the Big Bang of classical music.

The FREE informal event – complete with interviews, snacks and beverages – will take place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) at 1833 Regent Street on Madison’s near west side close to Randall Elementary School.

How do you like your Bach?

Sung? Played on instruments?

As originally scored? As arranged and transcribed?

Played by students? By adult amateurs? Or by professionals?

Whatever you are looking for and love to hear, chances are good you will find it on the schedule. There will be all of the above, and more. There will be cantatas and concertos, suites and sonatas, preludes and fugues. (You can hear the instantly recognizable and frequently played Prelude No. 1 in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The whole event will be streamed live locally and beyond.

To get an idea of what will happen from previous events, go to the previous blog post, which has a lot of photos, or use this blog’s search engine:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/classical-music-bach-around-the-clock-2019-is-looking-for-performers-of-all-kinds-to-play-on-march-2/

For more information, here is a link to the home website that has both the full schedule and a link for streaming as well as other information about free parking as well as how to participate in and support the event.

https://bachclock.com

Here is the specific link to the full schedule, with names of performers and pieces:

https://bachclock.com/concert-schedule/

Take a look. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations about what others should attend and listen to? Leave a COMMENT if you want.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players perform all 20th-century American music this Saturday night. Plus, a master class about Schubert is TODAY at 4:30

January 24, 2019
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ALERT: Susan Youens, a world-famous scholar of the music of Franz Schubert, will give a FREE and PUBLIC master class TODAY at 4:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. Her class is in advance of her appearance and pre-concert lecture at the annual UW Schubertiade this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27. More information about that event will appear in tomorrow’s blog post. 

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players will perform a concert of all-American music from the 20th century this Saturday night, Jan. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed  Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Tickets are $15 for adults; $10 for senior citizens; and $5 for students. Only cash and personal checks will be accepted.

A reception will follow the concert.

Performers are violinists Laura Burns and Wes Luke, cellist Kyle Price, and founder-pianist Jess Salek. (Photos below of the performers are by John W. Barker at a previous concert.) They also play with other professional groups such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Ancora String Quartet and the Rhapsodie String Quartet.

The program includes the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Aaron Copland; the Sonata in Three Movements for Violin and Piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (below); “Road Movies” for Violin and Piano by John Adams (you can hear the opening in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6, by Samuel Barber.


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Classical music: TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m., guest artist Clive Greensmith of the Tokyo String Quartet and USC will give a FREE cello recital at the UW-Madison

October 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you like cello music – which to some ears sounds especially appropriate in autumn – you might be interested in an event tonight.

One of the most distinguished chamber music cellists in the world has been at the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music over the weekend for a three-day residency involving UW string and piano students and members of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

He is Clive Greensmith (below) who played with the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet from 1999 until it disbanded in 2013 and who now teaches at the Colburn School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Greensmith’s residency of lectures, demonstrations and master classes culminates TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall with a FREE recital that also features UW piano professor Christopher Taylor, UW cello professor Uri Vardi and the UW Cello Choir.

The appealing program includes the Sonata for Two Cellos by Luigi Boccherini; “Silent Woods” by Antonin Dvorak and the Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the slow movement of the Brahms sonata, played by the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré and pianist Daniel Barenboim, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about Greensmith, his UW residency, his teaching and the concert tonight, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-recital-clive-greensmith-cello/

To to learn much more about Greensmith, including his recordings and latest projects, go to his homepage web site at: http://www.clivegreensmith.com


Classical music: The veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opens its season with a variety of vocal and instrumental works

October 15, 2018
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The new season’s first concert by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opened in Madison on Saturday evening, Oct. 13, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. It offered, as always, a program of wide range and variety.

There were nine performers involved this time, two of them singers — the familiar UW-Madison soprano Mimi Fulmer and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo.

Fulmer sang an Italian cantata of contested authorship, with Sigrun Paust on recorder (below). Later, Sañudo sang a Latin motet by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, with helpers (violinist Nathan Giglierano, Monica Steger on recorder, Eric Miller on gamba and Max Yount on harpsichord).

The two joined in three items from Claudio Monteverdi’s Third Book of Madrigals (below). They were a bit of a twist, for they were meant for five singers. So the other three parts were taken by three viola da gamba players (Anton TenWolde, Miller, Charlie Rasmussen) — which actually proved not the best way to project the madrigal textures.

The bulk of the program was instrumental.

Variations, or “divisions” made two appearances. From the obscure August Kuehnel, there was an aria given long elaborations by two gambas (Miller, Rasmussen). Another set of variations, from a collection published by John Playford, was dashed off by violinist Giglierano, with gamba (Miller) and harpsichord (Steger) for continuo (below).

The duo form was also represented by such a piece for two cellos (below), by Tommaso Giordani, played by TenWolde and Rasmussen.  A cello sonata by a certain Franceso Alborea was the solo spot for TenWolde, with Rasmussen and Steger on continuo.

With a more conventional ensemble, we heard a Trio Sonata in A minor by Georg Phiipp Telemann, with Giglierano and Faust, plus TenWolde and Steger as the continuo. (You can hear the Telemann Trio Sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom)

It was for the final item, as a grand finale (below), that all seven of the instrumentalists joined in a little ballet suite by Boismortier.

Music lovers who attend concerts such as these should remember that the works presented were, by and large, not intended for presentation to a “public.” This is mostly “parlor” music (“chamber,” you recall), meant for the players to exercise their playing skills for themselves and any friends.

There are masterpieces in this literature, but seeking them out is not the primary goal of the WBE. Rather, that is to allow performers to test and show off their skills in music they find challenging and satisfying. The pleasures which that gives to an audience are the bonus.

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has been around as a performing group in Madison since 1997. As such, it is the oldest surviving ensemble in town devoted to early music, and might be said to have inaugurated the taste and audience for that literature.

Such taste and audience have now expanded extensively, but the WBE continues to make its own chamber contributions with unfailing devotion.

For more information, about the WBE and its upcoming season, go to: https://wisconsinbaroque.weebly.com


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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