The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera stages its first-ever production of Dvorak’s fairy tale opera “Rusalka” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A preview roundtable is this Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage its production of Antonin Dvorak’s luxurious masterpiece Rusalka on Friday night, April 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Running time is 3 hours with two intermissions, and will feature projected supertitles with English translations of the original Czech that will be sung.

Tickets are $18-$131 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

Inspired by the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story travels from a mythical forest to a palace and back again. Its lush score includes the famous “Song to the Moon.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing”Song to the Moon” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in a mythical realm, Rusalka is about a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince. She tells her father Vodnik that she wishes to become human and live with the Prince on land. Horrified, Vodnik tells her that humans are full of sin, but reluctantly suggests she enlist the help of Jezibaba, a witch. Jezibaba agrees to make her human, but cautions that Rusalka will lose her power of speech. Further, if the Prince betrays her, she will be cursed forever.

The Prince falls in love with Rusalka and plans to marry her, but her silence unnerves him, and a Foreign Princess interrupts the wedding festivities with evil intent. Rusalka returns to the lake as a spirit that lures men to their death – and the Prince follows her.

Rusalka is one of the most gorgeous operas in the repertoire,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with it when I first saw it over 20 years ago, and listening to the score is a pure pleasure. I am so delighted to share this opera with Madison, so that everyone can learn how brilliant an operatic composer Dvorak was, and experience an opera that is justifiably popular around the world.”

Rusalka’s story was inspired by multiple sources, including Slavic mythology and the fairy tales of Karel Jaromir Erben, Hans Christian Andersen, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.

The opera premiered on March 31, 1901 in Prague and quickly became a massive success, hailed as Dvorak’s masterpiece.

But it was not initially widely performed outside of Czech territories; the first U.S. performance was in 1975. But in recent decades, the opera by Dvorak (below) has become a regular part of the opera repertoire, due to its beautiful music and lovely story.

This production is not only a Madison Opera premiere, but also the company’s first-ever opera in Czech.

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts.

Soprano Emily Birsan (below) returns to Madison Opera in the title role, following successes here as Gounod’s Juliet and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. Last month, she sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has praised her singing for her “amazing clarity of diction, accuracy of intonation and fineness of expression.”

Tenor John Lindsey (below) returns to Madison Opera as The Prince, after singing in last summer’s Opera in the Park.

Making their debuts with Madison Opera are soprano Karin Wolverton as the Foreign Princess, contralto Lindsay Amman as the witch Jezibaba and bass William Meinert as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik. Emily SecorSaira Frank and Kirsten Larson play the three wood sprites; Benjamin Liupaogo sings the Hunter.

The Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra round out the musical forces, all under the baton of John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), Madison Opera’s artistic director.

Keturah Stickann (below) directs her first opera for Madison Opera; she has directed both traditional and contemporary repertoire across all of the U.S., most recently for San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera.

This production originated at Minnesota Opera and features projections (below) by Wendall K. Harrington, who has been described as “the godmother of modern projection design.”

In reviewing the Minnesota production, theTwin Cities Arts Reader praised “the stunning visuals on display, which only serve to enhance and elaborate on the action and the music.”

Madison Opera’s production of “Rusalka” is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kay & Martin Barrett, Millie & Marshall Osborn, Sally & Mike Miley, Kato Perlman, Charles & Martha Casey, John Lemke & Pam Oliver, and The Ann Stanke Fund.

RELATED EVENTS

You can learn more about “Rusalka” at the events leading up to the performances.

Opera Up Close will take place this Sunday, April 21, 1-3 p.m. at the Margaret C. Winston Opera Center (below) 335 West Mifflin Street, $20 general admission; free for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers.

This event features a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Rusalka. General director Kathryn Smith will discuss Antonin Dvorak and the history of his fairy-tale opera. Principal artists, stage director Keturah Stickann and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this masterpiece.

Pre-Show Talks by Kathryn Smith take place on Friday, April 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

Post-Opera Q&A’s are on Friday, April 26, and Sunday, April 28, immediately following the opera in the Wisconsin Studio at Overture Center, and are free to ticket holders.

More information — including cast biographies and a blog with Q&A interviews with some cast members — is available at https://www.madisonopera.org and https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/rusalka/.


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Classical music: On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians explore the miracle of Mozart across his lifetime and across different genres

April 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians concludes its 15th season on this coming Saturday night, April 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 7, at 3:30 p.m. with  The Mozart Miracle .

The program features performances of beloved music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, below) with an all period-instrument chamber orchestra in the magnificent acoustic setting of the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

Period-instrument specialists hailing from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City will perform on natural or valveless horns, classical oboes, gut-strung violins, violas, cellos and a double bass played with 18th-century transitional bows.

Early music specialist and bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below to, in a photo by James Gill) of UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will lead the orchestra (below bottom, in a performance last year at the First Unitarian Society of Madison).

Internationally acclaimed soprano Ariadne Lih (below), from Montreal, Canada, will join the ensemble for  Exsultate Jubilate — a ringing example of how Mozart could seamlessly fuse religious zeal with vocal pyrotechnics. (You can hear Renée Fleming sing “Exsultate Jubilate” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also features dance sequences, choreographed by Karen McShane Hellenbrand (below) of the UW-Madison, from Mozart’s ballet Les Petits Riens  (The Little Nothings).

Also included are pre-concert lectures: On Saturday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m.  there is a lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson with an 8 p.m. concert . On Sunday, April 7, his lecture is at 2:45 p.m.  with the concert at 3:30 p.m.

Advance-sale discounted  tickets are $35 for general admission.

Tickets are available at  Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East and West). You can also buy advance tickets online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are:  $38 general for adults, $35 for seniors 65-plus, and student rush for $10, on sale 30 minutes before lecture.

MBM artistic director Stephenson (below) sent the following remarks to The Ear:

Here are two fantastic quotations about Mozart:

“Together with the puzzle he gives you the solution.” Ferrucio Busoni on Mozart

“It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together as a family, they play Mozart…” Karl Barth

Both quotes underline, I believe, Mozart’s charismatic generosity of spirit, his sense of play and camaraderie. We’re all in this together! Mozart’s music is a perfect fusion of melodic inspiration — tunes so good they can stay in your head for joyous weeks at a time, or even a lifetime — and structural clarity.

His sense of proportion — when to display 18th-century balance and when to step outside the frame — is uncanny and always a delight. And for me, as a five-year-old-boy, dancing about the living room to the old LP vinyl — dancing lightly, though, so the record wouldn’t skip — it was Mozart’s boundless energy and joy, pouring out of the speakers, that really revved me up.

The Madison Bach Musicians program on this coming Saturday and Sunday will explore several sides of Mozart’s genius: master orchestrator and symphonist; aficionado of fugues; virtuoso keyboard player and mesmerizing improviser; ballet composer; and the greatest fashioner of material for the soprano voice.

MBM has assembled a Classical-period chamber orchestra, replete with gut strings and transitional bows, natural horns, and classical oboes. To this we’ll add: a fortepiano — the type of instrument Mozart toured with; an elegant dancer — for dance was an integral part of 18th-century living; and a magnificent soprano — Mozart was virtually besotted with the magic of the high female voice, and he wrote for it throughout his life with imagination and a sense of thrilling experiment that has never been equaled before or since.

Here is a bit about each selection:

Symphony No. 1 in E-flat majorComposed 1764 when Mozart was just eight years old (below), during an extended stay in London with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl. Strongly influenced by the symphonies of C. F. Abel and J. C. Bach (The London Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian).

Symphony No. 29 in A majorComposed 1774 when Mozart was 18 years old (below). It is often considered the pinnacle of his early symphonic writing.

Exsultate Jubilate  for soprano and orchestra – Written 1773 in Milan for the castrato, or male soprano, Venanzio Rauzzini, it is an elegant fusion of rapturous melodies and vocal display.

Adagio & Fugue  in C minor for strings – Composed in 1788, certainly the latest Mozart work on the program when the composer was 32. Mozart had by this time — largely through the Sunday soirees at Baron van Swieten’s—been studying Bach’s fugues closely for several years. This fugue is an arrangement of a work for two fortepianos, K. 426, which Mozart had composed five years earlier in 1783. Mozart added the opening Adagio for the strings version.

Fantasy in D minor for fortepiano – Mozart improvised frequently as part of both private and public performance. This Fantasy, with its dark distinctive opening which explores the fantastical low register of the fortepiano, may give us a good idea of what Mozart might have done one night just sitting down to “jam” for his friends.

Two French Songs for soprano and fortepiano — Birds follow the warm weather, so they never cease their courtship. And in the woods one day the protagonist foolishly rouses a sleeping Cupid — and pays a terrible price.

Ballet excerpts from  Les Petit Riens – literally The Little Nothings. Mozart composed most, but not all, of this ballet in Paris 1778 for Jean-Georges Noverre, ballet master of the Paris Opera. The work served as an interlude to an opera by Niccolo Piccinni that closed after just four performances.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet opens its new season in top form

September 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night in Mills Hall, in an all-masterpiece program that featured Classical, Romantic and Modernist works, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) opened its new season .

And it did so in top form. The Ear came away with one thought: You just can’t find better chamber music in Madison — and it’s free!

In the “Sunrise” Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Pro Arte exhibited the ideal Classical style with its balance, voicing and clarity.

The sunrise motif proved utterly convincing and evocative. Particularly noteworthy was how the group highlighted the dissonances in the Classical era’s slow movement. (Hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The interpretation offered more proof that when the work is consonant, you play for the dissonance; and when the work is dissonant, you play for the consonance.

In the short, non-stop Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Ear was impressed by how the Pro Arte teased out the remnants of late Russian Romanticism that creep into the mostly modernist works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Also remarkable was how the Pro Arte highlighted the structure and counterpoint that Shostakovich, a devotee of Bach, brought to his modernism. This seemed a softer and more lyrical Shostakovich, less strident or percussive, than you often hear. And the approach worked beautifully to engage the listener.

And then came the grand finale done grandly: the late Beethoven Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The quartet unraveled the often perplexing and thick texture; the epic length; and the forward-looking compositional methods.

The Pro Arte used a low-key and restrained approach that only highlighted the heart-rending lyricism of the “Heiliger Dangesang,” or Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving, that the aging Beethoven composed when he had recovered from what he thought might be a fatal illness.

How fitting! The perfectly planned program started with one dawn by the teacher and ended with another dawn by the student.

Madison keeps getting more new chamber music groups, all very accomplished and all very good. But the Pro Arte Quartet — now in its 106th season of existence and its 78th season in residence at the UW-Madison — is still tops. As one fan said in near disbelief, “That concert was out of this world.” He wasn’t alone as the performance drew a prolonged standing ovation and loud bravos from the two-thirds house.

When it comes to chamber music, you just can’t do better than the Pro Arte Quartet. It’s that simple. With such quality and affordability, the Pro Arte should always be playing to a full house.

The Pro Arte Quartet will repeat the same program on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, at 12:30 p.m. for “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.” Admission to the Brittingham Gallery 3 performance space is free, and the concert will be streamed live. Go here for details and a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-10-7-18/

And the dates and times — without programs — of future Pro Arte Quartet concerts can be found here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/


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Classical music: Prize-winning violinist Ilya Kaler returns to perform Paganini with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night

April 18, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo, clarinetist Jose Garcia-Taborda and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Mikhail Glinka, Max Bruch and Carlos Guastavino. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you were in the audience two years ago when violinist Ilya Kaler (below) made his Madison debut with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it is unlikely that you have forgotten it.

Kaler proved himself a complete virtuoso when he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major. The audience went wild and so did the critics, including The Ear.

Backed up with a first-rate accompaniment by music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO, Kaler showed a perfect mix of dramatic virtuosity, songful lyricism, lush tone and sonic clarity that you rarely hear.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center Kaler returns to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), again under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The vehicle this time is the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7, by perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso of all time, Niccolo Paganini (below, playing for astonished listeners).

The concerto is famous for the “La Campanella” (The Bell) theme of the last movement that inspired the show-off etude of the same name by the great pianist Franz Liszt, who sought to emulate and transfer Paganini’s fiendish violin virtuosity on the piano. (You can hear that last movement in YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the program are: The Mozart-like and operatic String Sonata No. 2 by a 12-year-old Goiachino Rossini; and the Symphony No. 81 in G Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer who is one of the interpretative strengths of Sewell (below).

Tickets are $15-$80. For ticket information and purchases, got to: http://www.overture.org/events/ilya-kaler

Born in Russia and trained at the famed Moscow Conservatory, Kaler now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. He also won major gold medals in the 1980s at three major international competitions: the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; the Paganini Competition in Genoa; and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki.

He also records frequently for Naxos Records. To find out more about the impressive Kaler, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilya_Kaler


Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
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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 Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 2017
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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.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.


Classical music: This Saturday night the Ancora String Quartet will perform a program that features works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Niels Gade

July 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As it has often done over its 16-year history, the Madison-based Ancora String Quartet (ASQ) will mix a relatively unknown work by a neglected composer into a program of more established chamber music by more well-known composers.

The program it will perform this coming weekend — and then again at “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” on Sunday, Aug. 6 — is no exception.

The program features: the String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich; the String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 63, by Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade; and the String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear the melodious opening of the quartet by Niels Gade in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Barry Lewis) are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb.

Various members the Ancora String Quartet perform with such professional groups as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians;  members also teach both privately and publicly, including at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The first performance takes place this coming Saturday night (NOT Friday night, as mistakenly listed earlier in a erroneous headline),  July 29, at 7:30 p.m., at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent St., on Madison’s near west side. There will be a FREE champagne reception after the concert

Tickets will be available at the door, and are for general seating. Ticket prices are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors and students; and $6 for children under 12.

NOTE: The Ancora String Quartet will perform the same program on “Sunday Afternoon Live From The Chazen” in Brittingham Gallery No. 3  at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, Aug. 6, starting at 12:30 p.m. It will be live-streamed that day from the museum’s website,  and then re-broadcast two weeks later at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20, on WVMO, 98.7 FM, the “Voice of Monona.”

Here is a description of the program from the quartet:

“The ASQ offers a summer program of music from Europe’s northern, eastern and western corners. The Danish composer Niels Gade (below) reveals influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann in his lyrical and dreamy quartet. Seemingly from another planet, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 is a masterpiece of ambivalent modernist paranoia, telling his story with brevity and wit.

“Last on the program is Beethoven’s first published string quartet, written on the cusp of the 18th century. It combines Haydn’s witty Classicism, and Mozart’s lyricism,​ with a vigor, brilliance and expansive vision that is Beethoven’s own. The second movement Adagio depicts in stark terms the tragic tomb scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” while the other movements are distinguished by confidence, contrast, and contrapuntal complexity. ”

For more information about the performance and the quartet, including detailed biographies, go to:

http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS — On a cool and rainy weekend, here is a touch of summer

August 20, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The weather predictions that The Ear has seen say today and tomorrow will be cool and rainy with possible storms.

So here is a touch from the composer who The Ear thinks is the most summery composer in history. His work has just the right touch of breezy lightness and bright sunshine.

He is the 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc, so severely underestimated in his lifetime,  and here– in the YouTube video at the bottom — is his Sonata for Oboe and Piano, which The Ear often finds Mozart-like its simplicity, clarity and beauty.

Hope you enjoy.


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