The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison closes its season TONIGHT with a concert of East Asian music from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan

May 18, 2019
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ALERT: Today and next Saturday, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Music in Wisconsin” program, hosted by Lori Skelton, will air recorded performances from the past season by the Madison Opera. Both broadcasts start at 1 p.m. This week’s opera is the double bill of one-acts “Cav/Pag,” as Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Paglicacci” are known. Next week will see Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” with the famous soprano aria “Song to the Moon.”   

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will present the last concert of the season, “Jasmine Flowers,” TONIGHT — Saturday, May 18 — at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, in Madison.

The choir and its artistic director, Sergei Pavlov (below right in front row), will perform arrangements of famous songs such as the Japanese “Sakura” (Cherry Blossom), arranged by the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (his version is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Mo-Li-Hua” (Jasmine Flower), a popular Chinese folk song used variously as a national anthem and for the Olympics, arranged by the leading Korean composer Hyo-won Woo.

The choir will also feature other recent compositions sung in Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, English and French  — including works by Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Bob Chilcott, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel — inspired by the musical traditions of East Asia.

Admission, with general seating, is $10 for students, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for adults, with tickets available at the door the day of the concert. Tickets can also be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets at:

https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2019/5/18/jasmine-flowers

The Festival Choir of Madison is an auditioned, mixed-voice volunteer choir of over 50 experienced singers. The choir performs thematic concerts of artistically challenging choral music from around the world for listeners who enjoy traditional, modern and eclectic works, and for singers who enjoy developing their talents with others.

To learn more about the Festival Choir of Madison, go to www.festivalchoirmadison.org.


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 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 Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: Thanks to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society celebrating women, you can hear this beautiful Romance for violin and piano LIVE tonight in Madison and Sunday night in Spring Green

June 9, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight and Sunday night bring the second of six programs on the 27th annual summer series by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The theme of the whole series, along with the number 27, is “Toy Stories” and this particular program is called “American Girls” because it features so much music written by women composers — something in keeping with the timeliness and relevance of the #MeToo movement.

The first performance is TONIGHT, Saturday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. in The Playhouse at the Overture Center. The second performance is tomorrow, Sunday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green.

For more information about the BDDS season and about buying tickets ($43 and $48), go to http://bachdancing.org or to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/classical-music-this-weekend-kicks-of-the-27th-season-of-bach-dancing-and-dynamite-concerts-with-the-theme-of-musical-works-as-toys-to-be-played-with-for-serious-fun/

Included in the “American Girls” program is the very lyrical and beautiful Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23, by American composer Amy Beach (below).

If you want a taste of what awaits you if you go, at the bottom is a YouTube video of Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who has appeared in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, performing the Romance by Beach at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert.

Pine also explains the context that includes a very famous American woman violin virtuoso, Maud Powell, whom The Ear — and probably most others –had never heard of before.

The Romance will be performed tonight and Sunday night by BDDS veteran Yura Lee (below). She is an outstanding violinist and violist who hails from New York City and performs with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The rest of the program includes: “Chambi’s Dreams: Snapshots for an Andean Album” for flute, violin and piano by living composer Gabriela Lena Frank (below top); “Qi” for flute, cello, piano and percussion by Chen Yi (below middle); the Piano Trio in C Major, Hob. XV:27 by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the Piano Trio by American composer Rebecca Clarke (below bottom, above the YouTube video).


Classical music: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/


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Classical music: This Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs music composed by immigrants to the U.S.

April 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), the talented and energetic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, writes:

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present “Songs In a New Land” on this Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison and on Sunday, April 17 at 3 p.m. at Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., in Janesville.

Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org. They are also available at the door.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

The WCC’s concert will celebrate composers who were immigrants from the 15th century to the present, including emigres to the United States from China, Russia, Syria, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

At a time when immigration has become a burning issue in national politics, the WCC’s program highlights composers who emigrated from the country of their birth to make new homes elsewhere. They imported traditions from their homelands and enriched the cultural life of their adopted countries in innumerable ways.

Their reasons for leaving home were varied-some moved voluntarily but many were forced to emigrate for political, economic or religious reasons or, often, a combination of all of these.

While the experience of leaving behind all that is familiar and making a new life in a foreign country was rarely easy, the interaction of old and new influences resulted in some of the most lasting and unique artistic creations in history.

Most of the featured composers were or are immigrants to the United States, but the program opens with a set of Renaissance motets—“Stabat Mater” by Josquin des Prez (below top) and “Domine, Convertere” by Orlando di Lasso (below bottom) — demonstrating that migrant composers have played a major role throughout history.

Josquin Des Prez

Orlando Gibbons

Some of the more recent composers represented are: Kurt Weill, whose Kiddush was composed for Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City; Chen Yi (below top), represented by “A Set of Chinese Folksongs”; Osvaldo Golijov (below bottom), with an excerpt from his “Pasion segun San Marcos” (Passion According to St. Mark); and 20th-century giants Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Chen Yi

Osvaldo Golijov 2

Although Schoenberg and Stravinsky were known for their dissonant, modernist works, much of the music they composed in the U.S. was tempered by an effort to communicate with audiences here. During the 1940s, both men ended up settling in Hollywood, along with countless other exiled European artists fleeing totalitarian regimes and persecution at home.

In the case of Schoenberg (below), even though he is known as “the father of atonality,” and the originator of “12-tone” music, he continued to compose tonal music throughout his life, and often wrote in a more accessible style for amateur musicians. The WCC will present two such tonal works by Schoenberg: “Verbundenheit” (Solidarity) for male chorus, and the folksong arrangement, “Mein Herz in steten treuen” (My Heart, Forever Faithful).

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

In the American works of Stravinsky (below), the Credo movement of his 1947 Mass was subtly influenced by American Jazz.

Igor Stravinsky old 2

Joining the WCC will be Madison organist Mark Brampton Smith, who will accompany several pieces at the organ as well as perform solo organ works by Paul Hindemith and Joaquin Nin-Culmell (two additional mid-century immigrants to the U.S.).

Mark Brampton Smith

The movements from Stravinsky’s Mass will be performed with Brampton Smith at organ and guest trombonist Michael Dugan (below), who will also enhance Josquin des Prez’s “Stabat Mater” by playing sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Michael Dugan

Guest percussionist Stephen Cherek will enliven several of the Latin American selections, playing a variety of instruments.

Here are some YouTube links to sample performances:

Josquin des Prez, “Stabat Mater”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsayDDRl3kI

Orlando di Lasso, “Domine Convertere”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufP3S_M4mog

Kurt Weill, “Kiddush”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RI2jTYqso0

Chen Yi, “Mo Li Hwa” (“Jasmine Flower” from A Set of Chinese Folksongs)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtlsW2ZjSHA

Osvaldo Golijov, “Demos Gracias” (from La Pasion segun San Marcos)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vldVEk29s3Y

Arnold Schoenberg, “Verbundenheit” (from Six Pieces for Male Chorus)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPAeA3sIoc8

Arnold Schoenberg, “Mein Herz in steten Treuen”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPsE1LBMHrs&index=5&list=PLdXviD-nr2a7RIabEqL5XrXLi4G7V71tP

Igor Stravinsky, Credo (from Mass)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBpfSfq9v0A


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