The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Prize-winning composer John Harbison has turned 80. In February, Madison will see many celebrations of his birthday, starting this Friday night with the Imani Winds

January 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Feb. 1, a month-long celebration in Madison of the 80th birthday of critically acclaimed and prize-winning composer John Harbison (below) gets underway.

The festivities start with a concert by the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds (below), which will perform this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. – with a pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. — in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The program includes Harbison’s popular Wind Quintet.

Here is a link with more information about the group, the program and tickets:

Among America’s most distinguished artistic figures, Harbison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur ”genius grant’ and a Pulitzer Prize. His work encompasses all genres, from chamber music to opera, sacred to secular. (You can hear Harbison discuss his approach to composing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He has composed for most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Institute Professor at MIT, Harbison serves as composer, conductor, performer, teacher and scholar. He divides his time between Cambridge, Mass., and Token Creek, Wis., where he co-founded and co-directs a summer chamber music festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison.

Other local birthday events include a performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra; several chamber music and choral concerts at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, including one by the Mosaic Chamber Players; an exhibition of books and manuscripts at the Mills Music Library at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library.

There are also several concerts, including the world premiere of a new Sonata for Viola, and a composer residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music; and the world premiere of a new motet by the Madison Choral Project.

Harbison will also be featured in radio interviews and broadcast retrospectives by both Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT community radio.

National and international celebrations include other world premieres of commissions, many new recordings and the publication of Harbison’s autobiographical book about Johann Sebastian Bach, “What Do We Make of Bach?”

For more details about the many local celebrations, you can go to the following two links. Schedules, programs and updates – events are subject to change — will be posted at and

To receive “Harbison Occasions,” an intermittent e-newsletter, write to


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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

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:

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: A curmudgeon vents his complaints concerning the music scene in Madison, Plus, this Sunday Afternoon the Pro Arte Quartet plays Haydn and Dvorak in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art that will be streamed live

November 4, 2017

ALERT: The UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 5, at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery No. 3. The program features the String Quartet in E Major, Op. 53, No 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 16, by Antonin Dvorak. The “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” concert will also be streamed live. Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an essay by Larry Wells, a guest reviewer and a frequent concertgoer. He writes:

“As I have aged, I have become more of a curmudgeon. (My friends and family will readily attest to this.) It is in that spirit that I address some annoyances I have been experiencing over the past few years while attending musical events in Madison.

“I will start with a recent experience, attending University Opera’s performances of “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” at Music Hall (below). The two arms of any seat in the hall have two different numbers. Unless the guest was paying attention as he entered the row, it is unclear which number belongs to which seat. After attending a few shows there, I have figured it out. But I don’t believe I have ever been to a performance there when there hasn’t been confusion about which seat is which. I have routinely heard people asking others (who are generally equally clueless), and I have routinely seen blocks of people shift over one seat. You would think that someone at a great educational institution could figure out a way to make the seating less baffling.

“An equally annoying phenomenon occurs regularly at Mills Hall, also on campus. I discovered that, for choral concerts particularly, the sound in the balcony is far better than the sound on the main floor. However, the doors of the balcony are often locked and the ushers regularly say that the balcony is not open. Upon making further insistent inquiries, I usually manage to get someone to unlock the balcony, but I wonder why it is felt that unlocking it routinely is such an onerous task.

“I will also mention that, regardless of one’s seat location in Mills Hall, it is difficult not to notice that the sound clouds over the stage are in sore need of a dusting and cleaning.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a wonderfully amusing song for “The Frogs” called “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” In it the audience is reminded not to talk, cough, fart and so on. (You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“At the aforementioned performances in the Music Hall (I went twice), I saw people texting and video recording the performance even though the program has, in very small print, an admonishment not to photograph or film. At a recent choral concert in Mills Hall, texting was rampant during the performance, and there was no mention about turning off cell phones in the program. The bright screens immediately draw the eye away from the stage. I find it extremely distracting.

“At performances given by the UW Dance Department, a loud and forceful announcement at the beginning of each performance instructs the audience to turn off cell phones, no texting, no photos, etc. A similar announcement takes place not only at the beginning of the concert but also at the end of intermissions for performances at Overture Center. I think it is time for the UW Music Department to address the issue in a similar way.

“Another criticism of the way that things are done by the Music Department: Why is it so hard to find out what is being performed at a recital or concert? The Music Department has a good website with a calendar that lists the performances being given on any day, but many times the program is not included in that information. I am disinclined to go to a concert when I don’t know what the program is, and I often will go to a performance just to hear one work if it’s one I am anxious to hear. Thus, I often have to go roaming around the Music Building looking for posters or sometimes even going to the person sponsoring the performance to ask what the program is. It shouldn’t be that hard.

“An issue at Overture Center is whispering. I do not understand how people have lived to the ripe old ages that most of the audience members have and not come to realize that whispering is still audible.

“Two seats away from me at Overture Hall for my symphony subscription is a woman who, at every single performance, starts to cough as soon as the music begins, noisily unzips her purse, reaches in and fumbles around until she finds her cough drop, and then noisily unwraps its cellophane cover. Every time. It is a wonderment to me that she has not discovered that she could unwrap the cough drops in advance and have them at the ready.

“When I subscribed to the San Francisco Symphony, there were bowls of wax paper wrapped cough drops at every entrance. Not a bad idea.

“And then there is the seemingly obligatory standing ovation syndrome that has become a standard feature of every performance in Madison. In the rest of the world a standing ovation is reserved for an extraordinary performance deserving special recognition. Here I think of Pavlov’s dog and sheep. The performance ends, one person leaps to his feet (that’s the Pavlov part) and everyone else stands (that’s the sheep). At the same time the sentiment has been lost, and it all seems rather provincial to me.

“I realize that these are all first-world problems of little importance. They are minor annoyances, but that is what a curmudgeon dwells on. And it feels great to vent.”

Do you agree with any of these complaints?

Do you have any major or minor complaints to add?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Voces Aestatis — Summer Voices — will perform early and Baroque vocal music this Friday night

August 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post from Ben Luedcke, the artistic director of the choral group Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices, below).

Luedcke writes:

Voces Aestatis (Summer Voices) will present its third annual summer concert this Friday night, Aug. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below top and below bottom), 1833 Regent Street in Madison.

Tickets are $20 and available at the door. (Cash and check only; sorry, no credit or debit card sales.)

Artistic Director Ben Luedcke (below) and Assistant Director Ena Foshay have carefully selected singers with a pure blend to perform in this intimate concert venue.

Voces Aestatis is Madison’s only professional choir that specializes in early music.

The group will maintain its tradition of favoring a cappella repertoire of the 16th century, but new this year will be a collaboration with Saint Andrew Episcopal’s music director, Ken Stancer (below).

Stancer will accompany the choir on organ in four 17th-century pieces, including works by Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Gabrieli, Henry Purcell and Marc-Antione Charpentier.

While the Purcell is the familiar, powerful and climactic “Hear My Prayer,” Gabrieli’s “O Jesu mi dulcissime” and Charpentier’s “Te Deum,” H.147, are rarely performed and are not to be missed.

The Gabrieli setting is for double-choir. But rather than two equal choirs, there are separate low-voice and high-voice choirs that provide a unique and sonorous texture of men and women. Additionally, the Charpentier is full of variety, including solos and quartets within the larger 10-minute piece.

Other a cappella works round out the program, including music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and William Byrd (below).

Most noteworthy will be the group’s fresh look at the double-choir motet “Super flumina babylonis,” by Phillipe de Monte (below). Although the work is typically performed rather slowly and lamentingly, the group will bring a decisively different interpretation with a quicker tempo and active articulations. (You can hear a traditional performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also of note on the first half are pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (below top) and Orlando di Lasso (below bottom), with texts from the “Song of Solomon” — a collection of bible passages that allege to describe the love between Christ and the Church, though they are in fact favorites of choral composers as they are known for their rather erotic descriptive passages.

Finally, Jacob Obrecht’s “Salve Regina” for six voices is likely to stun listeners not only for its beauty, but also because it was written almost 100 years earlier than anything else on the program.

It features a noticeably different and almost austere harmonic palette with overlapping thick textures, as well as many complicated rhythms and chants in between major sections.

Please visit for more information or to support the organization. The group relies on individual donations, so we thank you in advance for supporting the arts in Madison.

Classical music: The music of Beethoven played a major role in modern China. Here’s how

September 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you think classical music has lost much of its relevance in modern times, you might want to read or listen to this terrific interview about the importance of Ludwig van Beethoven in modern China.

Below is a photo of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral” Symphony with the famous “Ode to Joy,” done in 1959 by an all-Chinese orchestra with Chinese singers and sung in Mandarin.

Plus, a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also played a major role in modern China following the Cultural Revolution.

Beethoven in China 1959

The interview, with two native Chinese musicians who now teach at Stanford University. was done by NPR or National Public Radio, for its Deceptive Cadence blog. The Ear found it both eye-opening and inspiring.

Perhaps it even helps to explain why these days classical music often seems more vital to the East than it does to the West.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.


Classical music: Madison’s maestro John DeMain and others preview and review the world premiere by the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s opera “Cold Mountain.”

August 10, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

First it was a best-selling and prize-winning novel.

Then it became a popular Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.

Now it is an opera that received its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera this past week and is proving so popular with audiences that an extra performance has been added and regional premieres are already booked around the country. (The Minnesota Opera will give the Midwest premiere.)

It is “Cold Mountain,” a Civil War story about a Confederate soldier’s return home that is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”

cold mountain cast and set

Here is a review, posted on Facebook, by our own John DeMain, the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, who attended the world premiere performance. DeMain came to Madison, by the way, from his post as director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he gave the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” So he is a fan of new operas.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) writes:

“How wonderful “Cold Mountain” was last night at its world premiere in Santa Fe. Jennifer Higdon is simply a wonderful composer and her piece with Gene Scheer‘s compelling libretto, soared to great heights. Great directing from Leonard Foglia, with a brilliant design concept, and a great cast. Emily Fons was magnificent as Ruby. Fabulous orchestral writing, beautiful choral work, and compelling duets and ensembles. A very sad, grim piece given a dynamic treatment by all involved.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Such discerning enthusiasm makes you wonder if DeMain and the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith might not be looking to bring “Cold Mountain” to Madison in a couple of seasons. (The male lead Nathan Gunn has already sung in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and  with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, by the way.) One can hope! (Below are the leads mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Ada and baritone Nathan Gunn as Inman in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.)

Cold Mountain Nathan Gunn as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada CR Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

You can hear the creators of the opera discuss it in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Here are some other sources for previews and reviews:

Here is a story from NPR or National Public Radio:

cold mountain by ken howard

The PBS NewsHour aired a lengthy feature by Jeffrey Brown that includes lots of video and interviews with the cast; with Charles Frazier (below right), who wrote the best-selling novel; and with Jennifer Higdon (below left), the composer of the opera who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia:

Jennifer Higdon and Charles Frazier

And here is a short news story and a longer, more negative or critical review from Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times:

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