The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here are playlists of the best classical music for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What music would you choose?

December 24, 2018
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REMINDER: A well-edited one-hour excerpt of the recent Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra will air on Wisconsin Public Television at 9:30 p.m. this Tuesday, on Christmas Night. The Ear saw the first airing of the broadcast and highly recommends it. Both the programming and the performing are top-notch. It is a perfect way to wrap up your holiday.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas Day.

Some people celebrate tonight and some people celebrate tomorrow.

But no matter when you mark the holiday with gifts, gathering and special food, great music has an integral place in the celebration.

Indeed, music seems nothing less than a great gift to the entire world. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

To help you celebrate, here are playlists of the best classical music, from Medieval times through Baroque music up to living composers, for marking Christmas.

Here are two playlists, with a total of two hours of music, already compiled and available on YouTube. Be sure to hit SHOW MORE at the top to see the complete title, composer’s name and timing of the selections:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrFCdi7apV8&list=PLcGkkXtask_cCaCLkrmuDUfukHct9eut-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voIrzsxeE6w

And perhaps best of all, here are several lists in the same place from famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City. They not only have generous sound samples, but also allow you to choose what genre of music you prefer — say, choral music or brass music or piano music to string quartet chamber music:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/essential-christmas-recordings/

What music would you choose as favorite Christmas fare?

The Ear wants to hear.

Enjoy! And Merry Christmas to all!


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: Need a break from holiday shopping or final exams? A FREE “Just Bach” midday concert TODAY marks Christmas. On Friday at noon a free concert features violin music of Mozart and Ravel.

December 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Need a  break from holiday shopping or final exams this week? Today’s post brings announcements of two short and appealing midday concerts:

TODAY

Just Bach is a new monthly series of hour-long concerts in Madison celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The series continues with an end-of-semester performance at 1 p.m. TODAY, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave.

Admission is free with goodwill offerings accepted. Audience members are permitted to eat and drink during the performance.

Next semester’s dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Here is the complete program for today’s concert:

BWV 729: In dulci jubilo (Mark Brampton Smith, organ)

Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I embrace You?) from Part I of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

BWV 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen)

Chorale: Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will cherish you assiduously) from Part III of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Aria from BWV 213: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my beloved)

Chorale: Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall (Look there, there He lies in a dark stall) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Duet from BWV 110: Ehre sei Gott (Glory be to God)

SELECTIONS FROM PART IV OF BACH’S “CHRISTMAS ORATORIO”:

Recit and Chorale: Immanuel, o suesses Wort! (Emmanuel, oh sweet word!)

Aria: Floesst, mein Heiland, floesst dein Namen (My Saviour, Your name instills)

Recit and Chorale: Wohlan, dein Name soll allein (Well then, Your name alone)

Aria: Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will live only to honor You)

Chorale: Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht  (Break forth, oh beautiful morning light) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the critically acclaimed Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, sung to pictures of Bach’s own manuscript.

Singers are Sarah Brailey and Elisheva Pront, sopranos; Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, mezzo-soprano; Wesley Dunnagan, tenor; and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe, bass.

The orchestra includes: Kangwon Lee Kim (below) and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt and Micah Behr, violas; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

FRIDAY

This Friday, Dec. 14, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will features violinist Wendy Adams and pianist Ann Aschbacher.

The  duo will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35, K. 526 – which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — and Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2

Here is some background:

The First Unitarian Society of Madison presents “Friday Noon Musicales,” a distinguished artist recital series now in its 31st season.

Talented area musicians play most every Friday, from October through May. Mostly classical music, but Broadway, jazz, folk and other styles are presented at times as well. Enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and live music.

Concerts are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. All performances 12:15–1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Visit https://fusmadison.org/music for upcoming featured artists.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” this Friday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater

December 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about performances this coming weekend by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra of what is, unfortunately and undeservedly, often considered, when compared to Handel’s “Messiah,”  “The Other Oratorio” for the holiday season:

There will be two performances of four parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (1734). On Friday night, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater, 930 Main Street, in Whitewater.

Advance tickets for the Friday night performance at Luther Memorial Church in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports (Madison) and Willy Street Coop (all three locations in Madison and Middleton).

Advance tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets

Of the six cantatas that make up the “Christmas Oratorio,” Part, 1, 2, 3 and 5 will be performed. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the brisk and energetic opening, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.)

Parts 1 to 3 tell the Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels. Part 5 introduces the magi from the East, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

The music offers a sampling of every style of music in the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) as a composer.

Massive, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares, booming timpani and virtuosic fugues highlight the full chorus.

Solo arias, duets and trios and even one instrumental movement provide a contemplative contrast with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes and the pastoral sounds of oboes and bassoons.

Featured vocal soloists include mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below top) and tenor J. Adam Shelton (below middle), both on the faculty of UW-Whitewater. Highly accomplished members of the choir, including baritone Bill Rosholt (below bottom, and a Madison Savoyards regular), will share the solo parts with these professionals.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra, under concertmaster Leanne League (below), are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Trumpet virtuoso John Aley (below top) and oboist Marc Fink (below bottom) will also perform.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios, a cappella choral works from various centuries, and world premieres.

Bach’s music has always occupied a special place in the choir’s repertory, with performances of the Christmas Oratorio (2002 and 2003), the Mass in B minor (2005), the St. John Passion (2010) and the Magnificat (2017).

Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below) has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.


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