The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Merry Christmas from The Ear and Johann Sebastian Bach, who gave us the gift of his “Christmas Oratorio.” What is your favorite Christmas music?

December 25, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day 2015.

ChristmasTreeBranch.j

The Ear has only a few words, but a lot of music, to offer.

First, he wants to thank all his readers for the ongoing gift of their eyes, ears and attention as well as their comments.

In return, The Ear is offering his readers his favorite Christmas music.

He loves it more than more popular works such as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or the “Christmas” Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli, more than so much other holiday music.

It is Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, which is not really an oratorio but rather a series of six interconnected Christmas cantatas that do not get performed live very often.

It is performed superbly below in a YouTube video by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in a superb performance that comes from their worldwide Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.

Listen to it for the energetic and brassy opening movement.

Listen to it for various other wonderful moments, including the lovely Sinfonia.

Listen to it for the gorgeous solo and choral singing.

Listen to it in its entirety or in parts.

Stream it on or around Christmas Day.

But listen to it, now or later, especially if you don’t already know it.

And be sure to let us know in the COMMENT section what your favorite piece of Christmas music is.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!

 

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Classical music: The Madison Brass Quintet will perform a FREE holiday concert this Saturday at noon. Plus, pianist Olivia Mussat performs a FREE recital of works by Haydn, Liszt and Ginastera at noon on Friday.

December 17, 2015
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianist Olivia Mussat, who studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, in music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Liszt and Alberto Ginastera.

By Jacob Stockinger

Grace Presents is currently in its fifth year of offering free public concerts on the Capital Square. The series features local musicians and is a lively and eclectic mix of genres each month.

This Saturday, as part of Grace Presents, the versatile Madison Brass Quintet (below) will perform a FREE holiday program from noon to 1 p.m. at the newly remodeled Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Ave., where it joins Carroll Street on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Madison Brass Quintet

The well-known regional ensemble has been performing throughout the Midwest since 1982 and featuring some of the finest musicians in Southern Wisconsin. The Madison Brass features custom-tailored programs for any event from their extensive repertoire, which encompasses music from the 1500’s to the New Millennium.

The Madison Brass Quintet will play traditional and contemporary holiday and Christmas favorites for their concert.

Here are samples you can listen to:

https://www.youtube.com/user/TheImpactofBrass/featured

Website: http://www.sandylaclair.com (Click on Madison Brass)

 


Classical music: The acclaimed Madison Choral Project will perform its third annual Holiday Concert this FRIDAY night (NOT Saturday) and Sunday afternoon. It features two world premieres plus readings from Shakespeare, Rumi and the Bible

December 15, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Madison Choral Project (below top), under the direction of its founder and conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom) — who used to teach at Edgewood College and now teaches at Northwestern University — will present two performances of its third annual holiday concert, “A Procession of Angels,” this weekend.

(NOTE: You can hear the Madison Choral Project singing its beautiful a cappella arrangement of the carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Madison Choral Project 5-15 1

Albert Pinsonneault 2

The popular Holiday program will be performed twice in Madison; this Friday night, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 1609 University Ave. and again on Sunday night, Dec. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, 110 N. Gammon Rd.

The concerts feature Christmas music, as well as music from other traditions, and TWO WORLD PREMIERES of new compositions: “My Brilliant Image” by Madison composer and MCP singer Jasper Alice Kay (below top); and a new arrangement of “Deck the Hall” by the award-winning composer Jocelyn Hagen (below bottom). Other guests artists are also featured.

Jasper Alice Kay

Jocelyn Hagen

Wisconsin Public Radio‘s news director Noah Ovshinsky (below) again joins the MCP to read selected texts that relate to the theme of the concert. There will also be a chance for the audience to join in on some holiday sing-alongs.

Noah Ovshinsky

Music by composers such as Dominick Argento (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below bottom), Alexander Sheremetev, William Billings, Ola Gjeilo and Kenneth Jennings, among others, will represent many of the points of view that unite the public in reflection upon the season.

dominick argento 1

mendelssohn_300

Also featured is John Aley (below), a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of music and the virtuoso principal trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the reading of texts by William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Hildegard von Bingen as well as from the Bible and from the mystic Sufi Arabic and Persian poets Ibn Arabi and Rumi.

john aley color

The Madison Choral Project, founded in 2012, is Madison’s professional choir. Its 22 voices are made up of professional singers, teachers and graduate students from the Madison Area.

The MCP says it “is committed in its mission to enrich lives in our community by giving voice to the great music of our diverse world; to express, to inspire, to heal; to garner joy in the experience of live music; and to educate and strengthen the next generation of singers and listeners.”

Tickets are available in advance at www.themcp.org as well as at the door of each performance venue. ($25 at the door, $20 advance tickets and $10 student tickets with student I.D.)

For more information, visit: http://themcp.org


Classical music: The Ear likes very old Christmas music more than newer music. What do you prefer?

December 22, 2014
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year in the Madison area there are so many wonderful concerts with holiday themes performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Choral Project, the Madison Bach Musicians, Edgewood College and by many, many others  that you just can’t get to all of them.

And it doesn’t help if you have a winter cold or aren’t feeling well, as happened this year to The Ear.

But I did get to two memorable performances.

The first was the terrific annual Choral Prism holiday concert (below) put on at Luther Memorial Church by various choirs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. They performed under several conductors, including Beverly Taylor, Bruce Gladstone, Anna Volodarskaya and Sara Guttenberg.

UW Prism 2014 singers 1

UW Prism 2014 crowd

The second was the satisfying “Welcome Yule” concert at Grace Episcopal Church by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir under conductor Robert Gehrenbeck, who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

WCC Welcome Yule 2014

Both events were excellent, and drew full and enthusiastic houses.

A lot of beautiful music in a wide variety of styles was offered by each of the two groups. That included homages to the St. Paul, Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below), who died at 64 this past year and who had close ties to Madison’s vocal groups that commissioned and performed his music. And because programs strive for ethnic diversity today, spirituals and jazz arrangements were also included. (I often cringe when I see something has been “arranged.”)

stephen paulus

But when all was said and done, the “winners” so to speak –- for The Ear at least -– were the old ones. I mean the very old ones, generally those works dating from the Medieval period and Renaissance period over the Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary eras with the Baroque falling somewhere in between.

Why did I like the old music so much?

One reason was the performances. The straight-ahead singing, mostly a cappella or unaccompanied but sometimes with a bit of percussive drum or lyrical harp added, was much more convincing than when I saw modern largely white singers stiffly swaying and awkwardly stomping their feet and clapping the hands to get into the swing of things and show some unconvincing imitation of gospel singing.

But I started thinking.

Maybe it goes back to the Bible and that old verse about “The Word made Flesh.”

That seems a much more successful formula for effective Christmas music than the modern approach, which I am starting to think of as “The Flesh made Word.”

That means that what gets to me is the very simplicity, the strength of the rhythms and melodies as well as the simpler harmonies and compositional techniques.

Simpler is simply better. No better proof was offered that a souped-up jazz arrangement of “Silent Night.” That venerable and quietly emotional carol cannot be improved upon by complicating it. Keep it simple. That seems to be the way to go. Another case of inferior “arranging,” I am afraid.

I think of the old Medieval hymns about a mother simply rocking her baby Jesus to sleep as she sings to him. Can there be anything more touching or poignant, more to the point or direct, especially at a historical period when there was no nighttime lighting and so many babies died.

More than nostalgia, such music offers the art of reducing things to the essential. And the essential, as the old composers seemed to know, is often the path to the universal.

Of course, the plain song or chant-like harmonies also add to the appeal.

But it still goes back to simplicity of the act and the simplicity of the metaphor.

That is why the great 20th-century modern English composer Benjamin Britten (below) used so many older carols in his “Ceremony of Carols” to such great effect.

Benjamin Britten

That is also why 100 times out of 100 I will prefer the simple 16th-century German tune “Lo how a Rose Ere Blooming” (at bottom in a YouTube video) over, say, the long and tedious “Magnificat” No. 20 with its overworked harmonies and complexities for chorus and organ by another 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells (below).

herbert howells autograph

What do you make of the old music versus new music debate when it comes to holiday music?

Do you agree or disagree with The Ear?

And what is your favorite local holiday concert  to recommend for next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: On Monday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra, with Madison Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Joe Morris as soloist, offers a holiday break from holiday music with works by Brahms, Gerald Finzi and Beethoven.

December 19, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Thank you, Middleton Community Orchestra.

Surely The Ear can’t be the only person who is starting to feel unpleasantly overwhelmed with holiday music — to say nothing of holiday shopping and holiday cards, with holiday this and holiday that.

Holiday music seems ever-present this time of the year. It  is in stores and malls, on the radio and TV, in the churches and even in the many concert halls. And it has been going on for weeks, if not months.

So coming into the home stretch of Christmas Week, The Ear is feeling particularly grateful to the Middleton Community Orchestra (below), a largely amateur group that also includes some very accomplished professionals.

Middleton Community Orchestra by William Ballhorn

The MCO rarely, if ever, disappoints me. But this upcoming concert, which is NOT billed as a “holiday” concert, seems especially inviting since it promises to offer the gift of music –- not just holiday music, but real music.

Coming into Christmas Week, I find this to be a very welcome offering, a pitch perfect program.

The concert not only features terrific music but also the right length at the right cost, and includes some post-concert meet-and-greet socializing so you can meet the musicians and other audience members.

Here is the announcement from MCO co-founders Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic:

The Middleton Community Orchestra’s December concert is this coming Monday, Dec. 22, at 7:30 p.m. at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Middleton High School, at 2100 Bristol Street, a simple right turn off University Avenue going west towards the Beltline a few blocks before Parmenter Street.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

The MCO is excited to be sharing the stage with Madison Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Joe Morris (below top) who will be performing the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings by the 20th-century English composer Gerald Finzi.

Jennifer Morgan MSO oboe by Joe Morris

You’d be counting down the days if you have heard Joe play (below top, in a photo by Cheryl Savan), and the work by Gerald Finzi (below bottom) is a beautiful piece through which Joe’s amazing clarinet playing soars.

joe morris playing CR Cheryl Savan

Gerald Finzi 1

Don’t miss the chance to hear Joe, the MCO and this beautiful concerto. How many 24-year-olds do you know who have won an audition from among 60 other clarinettists vying for the job? Come hear one of our local treasures.

The concert will be conducted by Middleton High School music teacher Steve Kurr (below).

Steve Kurr conducting

The program starts with the popular and rousing “Academic Festival Overture” by Johannes Brahms (below), which uses tunes from German drinking songs and which Brahms composed to celebrate an honorary degree he received.

brahms3

Then, after the lovely Finzi concerto, please stay so you can experience the irresistible energy and drive of Symphony No. 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), which concludes the program. It is many people’s favorite Beethoven symphony and was highly thought of by the composer and other famous composers including Richard Wagner who famously called it “the apotheosis of the dance” because of its lively rhythms.

(By the way, the well-known and haunting slow movement featured prominently in the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” several years ago. You can hear it at the bottom in a popular YouTube video.)

Beethoven big

We hope to see you Monday. Tickets are $10, with students admitted free of charge. Advance tickets are available at Willy Street Coop West or at the door on the night of the show starting at 7 p.m. You can also call (608) 212-8690 to reserve tickets in advance.

There will be a reception (below) for the audience and musicians after the concert.

MCO June 2014 reception

 

For information about the Middleton Community Orchestra, including how to support it and how to join it, here is a link to its website:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

 

 


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians successfully mines early music for its latest holiday concert of unusual offerings superbly performed.

December 15, 2014
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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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. And he also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Trevor Stephenson (below top) and his Madison Bach Musicians (below bottom) have established a solid tradition of offering a December “holiday” concert as a triumphant antidote to the debasement of musical life that the Christmas season seems to bring inevitably with it.

MBM holiday 2014 Trevor speaks JWB

MBM holiday 2014 all usicians JWB

This time around — specifically, last Saturday night at the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ — was no exception, and even a step forward.

It was further testimony, also, of Stephenson’s thriving collaboration with Marc Vallon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music faculty. Vallon chose a good many of the selections, organized the program, conducted (below top) some of it, and played the dulcian (Baroque bassoon, below bottom on the right).

MBM holiday 2014 Vallon conducting JWB

MBM holiday 2014 Marc Vallon on bassoon JWB

In that last, Vallon was joined by his wife, Martha Vallon, on viola da gamba as well as by Anna Steinhoff on the same instrument, violinists Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, plus Linda Pereksta on recorder.

IMG_1307

There was also a fine vocal quartet of soprano Chelsea Morris (below, far left), alto Sarah Leuwerke (far right), tenor Kyle Bielfeld (center left) and bass Davonne Tines.

MBM holiday 2014 singers

Stephenson himself, held much of it together playing on a dandy “orgel positif” or chamber organ, made all of wood.

MBM holiday 2014 pos tive or chamber organ JWB

The program was a nicely varied mix of vocal and instrumental music, and going back further than the usually featured 18th century.

Of the vocal works, all but one were sacred in character and function, though few were specifically related to the Christmas season.

The 16th century was represented by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) in four Latin pieces for the vocal group alone.  (One was an extraordinary chromatic study, typical of the composer’s experimentation with tonic bypassing of the old modal system.) The rest of the material was effectively from the 17th century, a time of wide explorations of the new Baroque idiom.

Orlando di Lasso

After an organ fugue by Giovanni Gabrieli, the explicitly instrumental pieces came from the pens of Johann Schenck (1660-1716), and Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), with varying instrumentations—the one by Schenck for two gambas (below, with Martha Vallon on the left and Anna Steinhoff) was particularly delicious.

MBM holiday 2014 Martha Vallon left and Anna Steinhoff CR JWB

Again in varying combinations, singers and players joined in selections by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1682), Johann Froberger (1616-1692), and Johann Schelle (1648-1701), as well as by two members of the musically prolific Bach family, of generations before Johann Sebastian Bach: Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), and Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694).  The latter’s double-choir German motet provided a chance for all 11 performers to come together for a grand finale (singers in one choir, instruments in the other).

MBM holiday 2014 singers and instrumentalists JWB

German was the predominant language of these vocal works. But an interesting curiosity was an adaptation that Heinrich Schütz made (his SWV 440), fitting a German translation to Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Italian madrigal, “Chiome d’oro” (the Monteverdi version is in a YouTube video at the bottom).

All the performers were expert in their work, though the two gamba players were particularly appealing among the instrumentalists, while — with no disrespect to the others — Morris and Leuwerke were truly wonderful in their singing assignments.

What matters most is that Stephenson and his colleagues have once again demonstrated that the realms of early music have endless treasures to offer — ones most particularly welcome on the parched December scene.

A large and enthusiastic audience testified to public recognition of that fact.


Classical music: Merry Christmas from The Ear! Here is a rescued compilation of Baroque holiday music to remind us how technology brings us the gift of the past as well as the future.

December 25, 2013
3 Comments

READER SURVEY: What piece of classical music do you most look forward to hearing — or most dread hearing — when Christmas arrives each year? Leave a comment. The Ear wants to hear.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas!

ChristmasTreeBranch.j

A lot of people, both young and old, will be opening hi-tech gifts like smart phones, desk-top and laptop computers, and tablet computers and iPads, to say nothing of digital cameras, video recorders and games.

hi tech items

But even though we think of technology as pointing us toward the future, it is also good to realize that it can return us to the past.

After all, CDs, which are relatively cheap to make, have brought back many performers and composers whose work had disappeared off the radar screen and fallen into neglect.

Take today’s example.

It is an old and acclaimed apparently out-of-print compilation album of Baroque Christmas music that was originally a vinyl LP.

And hearing the unfamiliar can be fun and informative, as I recently learned again at the third annual Holiday Baroque Concert (below) given by Trevor Stephenson and the Madison Bach Musicians.

MBM Chelsea Morris Vivaldi Gloria Holiday 2013

Not everything has to be George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or Arcangelo Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto Grosso – as critic John W. Barker pointed out in his recent review for this blog (a link is below):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/classical-music-the-madison-bach-musicians-serve-up-a-superb-concert-of-holiday-baroque-music-that-goes-beyond-the-holidays-and-show-the-group-has-a-new-local-tradition-in-the-makin/

Anyway, someone has posted this old recording of a Baroque Christmas music album on YouTube, and the comments show that readers appreciate it.

You could stream it or run it through the computer as background music for gift-giving, or do even more focused listening.

I hope you enjoy it, especially since it features some rarely heard repertoire by Michael Praetorius, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Dietrich Buxtehude, Michael Haydn,  Charles Theodore Pachelbel (NOT the more familiar Johann Pachelbel of “Canon in D” fame, Johann Hermann Schein and Andreas Hammerschmidt. Here it is, at the bottom:

Merry Christmas, all!

And thank you for your gift to me of your readership of The Well-Tempered Ear.


Classical music: What makes for a really great holiday classical album? NPR asks a Grammy-winning expert. What do you think?

December 13, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

From now to the holidays, we are sure to hear a lot about specific individual recordings that merit your attention as holiday  gifts – from single CDs and DVDs to box sets with dozens of recordings, many of which have been featured here in the past couple of weeks.

But what goes into making a really great and really memorable holiday album?

holidayalbums

Of course, such things are easy to dismiss if you are a really serious “music lover.” But you know what? Many a lesser selling work has been financed by the profits from holiday recordings – and we are not just talking about “Messiah.”

Anyway, what makes for a get holiday album? That is the question that NPR’s terrific classical music blog, “Deceptive Cadence,” put to an expert from the industry who has won dozens of Grammy awards (below).

Now, one smart mouth reader said that all holiday albums boil down to Muzak or elevator music – “not just a melody but a management tool,” as the old motto put it.

I am not so sure, especially given the popularity of holiday-themed concerts. And if you think about it, holiday music is just another form of occasional music — like the wonderful “Pomp and Circumstance” marches by Sir Edward Elgar or the”Royal Water Music” and “Royal Fireworks Music” as well as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or “Gloria” by Antonio Vivaldi or all the cantatas and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

grammy award BIG

But here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/27/247348768/confronting-the-ghosts-of-classical-christmas-albums-past

What do you look for in a memorable holiday album?

Music that is new to you?

Interpretations that seem fresh?

A consistency of theme?

Do you have a favorite holiday album, and what is it?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players will give two performances this weekend of “Celebration” – a program that mixes holiday-themed music with stories and poems. Plus, Naxos Records releases its FREE Advent app for iOS and Android platforms to bring you music from December 1 to Christmas Day.

November 26, 2013
2 Comments

NEWS: A good friend of this blog who works at Naxos Records writes: “Monday marked the release of our Advent Calendar app for iOS and Android platforms. The app is FREE and will supply you with 1 complete musical track for each day of Advent starting on this Sunday, December 1, up to Christmas Day. The Naxos Advent Calendar App can be downloaded to any iPhone, iPad, or Android device. Go to iTunes or Google Play.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) will weave together heart-warming folk tales from around the world along with a feast of holiday music. The concert will feature musical performances from the familiar to folk, from classical to jazz, and from duos to nonets.

Oakwood Chamber Players 2012 2

The family-friendly stories, interspersed throughout the concert, drawn from the wealth of global storytelling, are both cheering and poignant, expressing the cultures from which they are drawn.

The Oakwood Chamber Players will present Celebration! on this Friday November 29, at 1:30 p.m. and on Sunday, December 1, at 1:30 p.m. at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6205 Mineral Point Road. (In past year, the concert was called “Holiday Lights,” I believe, and was performed twice on the same day.)

Guest artists flutist Elizabeth Marshall(below) and oboist Jennifer Morgan (below bottom) will join the core musicians of the ensemble for the concerts.

Elizabeth Marshall flute

real Jennifer Morgan Oakwood USE photo

Tickets are available at the door: $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students.

There is holiday-related music covering quite a range from popular to traditional to folk in a variety of genres from trios to nonets. The music will be interspersed with stories and poems.

The program includes: the Motet from “Cantate Domino” by Orlando di Lasso (below top); Six Christmas Pieces, Op. 72 by Felix Mendelssohn; “Christmas Time is Here” by Vince Guaraldi with Vince’s jazz interpretation; “Shepherd’s Hey” by Percy Grainger (below bottom); and “Troika” by Sergei Prokofiev. Orlando di Lasso Percy Grainger

In keeping with the ensemble’s global theme for the year, some sets are grouped by geographic region. For example,  “Where Are You, Little Star” by Modeste Mussorgsky (below); the Slovak folk music of “Pastorela” as arranged by Tomacek; and Trepak” (at bottom in a popular YouTube video) from the ballet suite for “The Nutcracker” by Piotr Tchaikovsky; and also “Dormi, Dormi, O Bel Bambino,” a traditional Italian song; and “A La Nanita Nana” and “Riu Riu Chiu,” both traditional Spanish music.

Modeste Mussorgsky color tchaikovsky

This is the second concert in the Season Series titled “Origination:  Exploring Musical Regions of the World.”  Upcoming concerts by the Oakwood Chamber Players Concerts, performed at Oakwood Village and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum Visitors Center, include:

  • “Nordic” – February 1 and 2
  • “Russian Radius” – March 22 and 23
  • “Down Under”  – May 17 and 18

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for 30 years.

For more information about the group, concerts, tickets and performers, visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

 


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