The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.


Classical music: Middleton Community Orchestra and cellist Andrew Briggs succeeded beautifully in music by Rossini, Dvorak and Mendelssohn but a public reading of short essays by Matt Geiger seemed out of place

March 3, 2017
6 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 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 for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra  (below).

steve-kurr-and-mco-marc-2017-jwb

There was an unusual element to the program.

The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).

Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.

matt-geiger-at-mco-march-2017-jwb

Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.

Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.

Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.

andrew-briggs-mco-march-2017-jwb

The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). 

NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.

Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.

Steve Kurr conducting


Classical music: Concerts of Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein by the UW Choral Union on this Friday night and of Beethoven, Copland and Nielsen by the UW Symphony Orchestra on this Saturday night help finish off the first semester

December 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the first semester is at hand. And this weekend two very appealing concerts will help finish off the first half of the new concert season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. on this Friday night in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union and the UW-Madison Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform, for one performance only, three rarely heard works.

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

The orchestra and the campus-community chorus will be conducted by Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

The program of works that are relatively rare on programs includes the Mass in C Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Nänie: Song of Lamentation”  by Johannes Brahms (heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video below) and the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein.

Admission is $15 for adults; $8 for students.

Here are some notes about the works written by conductor Beverly Taylor:

“The Choral Union will present a 3 B’s concert, which includes masterpieces of three different types.

“The Bernstein “Chichester Psalms,” written in the 1960’s for a cathedral in Britain, is a setting of three psalms in Hebrew. The piece is for strings, brass and percussion, and lasts about 20 minutes. It features a flamboyant, joyful and somewhat dissonant opening full of exciting percussion writing.

“The second movement features a wonderful boy soloist, Simon Johnson, from the Madison Youth Choirs, with harp and strings. He is like the shepherd King David, who is peacefully in the fields with his sheep; contrasting that are the warring peoples, sung by the tenors and basses. The boy and women’s voices return singing peacefully above the warring mobs.

“The third movement starts in dissonant pain, but it dissolves into a beautiful, quiet psalm of praise and trust.

“The Brahms Nänie is a 15-minute setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller on the topic of beauty and its inability to last; even beauty must die, and the gods weep too, but the beauty itself is worth all! The style is Romantic with the long arching melodic lines for which Brahms is well-known.

“The Beethoven Mass in C is one of just two masses that Beethoven wrote; in contrast to the long, loud, high, grand and overpowering “Missa Solemnis,” the Mass in C is more charming, Mozartean and approachable. It still has some Beethovenian touches of sudden dynamic changes, sforzandi (which are emphases or accents), and slow, elegiac quartets. Our solo quartet will be Anna Polum, Jessica Krasinki, Jiabao Zhang and John Loud.”

For more background and information about how to get tickets, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-and-chamber-orchestra/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), under the baton of James Smith (below bottom, in a photo by Jack Burns), will give a FREE concert.

UW Symphony violins 2015

james smith Jack Burns

The program features three works: the late “King Stephan” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven (heard below in a YouTube video as conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic)  the “Billy the Kid” Suite by Aaron Copland; and the Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

The Ear has heard both groups often and highly recommends both concerts.

He was quite amazed at how good the last UW Symphony Orchestra program he heard was. It offered two Fifth Symphonies — by Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – only about three weeks into the semester.

It was nothing short of amazing how well the orchestra had come together in such a short time. It was a tight and impassioned performance. The Ear expects the same for this concert, which has had a lot more rehearsal time.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet opens its new season this Saturday night with a new first violinist and works by Beethoven, Turina and Tchaikovsky

September 13, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed, Madison-based Ancora String Quartet welcomes its new first violinist Wes Luke – who replaces Leanne Kelso League — for the  launch of the string quartet’s 16th season.

The concert is this coming Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program includes the String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2, by Ludwig van Beethoven; “The Bullfighter’s Prayer” by the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina; and the String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky.

Tickets at the door are $15 for general admission; $12 for seniors and students; and $6 for children under 12.

ancora-2016-group-1

Members of the Ancora (above from left) are: first violinist Wes Luke — who filled in for the past two seasons — plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the LaCrosse Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and the Mosaic Chamber Players; second violinist Robin Ryan, who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (she performs on both modern and early instruments) who plays with the Madison Bach Musicians, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble; and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and frequently performs chamber music.

According to program notes: “Beethoven’s charming and lyrical early quartet shows him bridging the divide between the Classical and Romantic eras; Turina’s dramatic tone poem fuses French Impressionism with musical elements from his native Seville; and Tchaikovsky’s first quartet includes the poignant Andante Cantabile, which moved writer Leo Tolstoy to tears. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A champagne reception will close the evening.


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