The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The never-fail Willy Street Chamber Players and guest artists will perform works by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich this Friday night

July 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 6 p.m., the acclaimed and adventurous Willy Street Chamber Players (below) return to their home base at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below middle and bottom), 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

The 90-minute program, the second of three subscription concerts this summer — the last one is next Friday — is a typically eclectic one that mixes new music with established repertoire.

It features “The Juliet Letters” by rock star Elvis Costello (below top, in a photo by James Omaha) with local tenor Adam Shelton (below middle), who will also sing the song cycleOn Wenlock Edge” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and pianist Jason Kutz (below bottom) in the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich. (You can hear Elvis Costello sing one of the Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There will also be a post-concert reception with east-side snacks from Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Madison Sourdough.

Admission is $15.

In addition, The Willys have inaugurated a Community Connect series to reach new audiences and perform around the city.

The Ear recently went to one of those concerts and came away grateful not only for the superb performances of great old and new music, but also very appreciative of alternative venues in the city.

But more about that tomorrow.

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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open a new season with an impressive program impressively played

July 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

Last Friday night, the six Willy Street Chamber Players (below) opened their third summer season at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

And once again, even though The Willys are relative newcomers, it is hard for The Ear to imagine a more perfect or more enjoyable concert.

The large and enthusiastic audience (below), which has grown considerably over the past two years, seemed to agree, judging by the standing ovations, loud applause and overheard comments.

So what made The Willys’ concert so great and so enjoyable?

Start with the basics

It was summery and informal. Shorts, T-shirts and sandals felt entirely appropriate.

It wasn’t expensive. A $15 ticket seems very affordable compared to what so many other local groups charge.

It wasn’t too long. They played just three pieces – two short and one long — that lasted under 80 minutes. That way you can enter the zone; concentrate hard and focus while you stay in the zone; and then leave the zone for good with time to do other things, including attend the post-performance reception with cookies, ice cream and coffee.

Spoken informal introductions to the pieces – each given by a different player – served as program notes, and they were kept short and to the point. (Below is cellist Mark Bridges humorously explaining the complicated love life of Brahms and how it affected his composing the string sextet.)

The playing itself was exemplary. (It featured the six core members plus guest violinist Suzanne Beia, below front left, of the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

The Ear detected no sour notes, no false starts or stops, no uncertain passages or interpretation. The well-rehearsed Willys played with precision as well as heart.

The program was typical Willy fare. It mixed short and long, old and new.

The old classics were two: Hugo Wolf’s charming “Italian Serenade” for string quartet (below) and with the String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, by Johannes Brahms, a long piece that received an energetic and thoroughly compelling reading.

But the star of the evening for The Ear came first: Jennifer Higdon‘s string quartet setting and contemporary take on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The riffs on the familiar tune by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (below) was new to The Ear and proved completely engaging, unmistakably modern-sounding yet accessible. (You can hear the Higdon work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Higdon string quartet (below) recalled an American tradition of using religious music for non-religious purposes. Think of how Charles Ives and Aaron Copland used old hymns and camp meeting songs, the most famous being Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

To be honest, a lot of new music just doesn’t speak to The Ear or reach him emotionally. It often makes him feel superfluous.

But The Willys have a knack for picking the right kind of new music that captures and holds The Ear’s attention, including the String Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass, the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain and “Entr’acte” for string quartet by Caroline Shaw.

It is a gift The Ear hopes they keep as they choose other contemporary composers and new music to perform with tried-and-true classics.

And if you want to hear more, you can go to The Willys’ website for details about the two remaining concerts this summer plus a FREE family-friendly Community Connect appearance at the east side Goodman Center from noon to 1 p.m. this Saturday. There they will play the works by Caroline Shaw and Daniel Bernard Roumain as well as “Tango for Four” by Astor Piazzolla and the Viola Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. (NOTE: An earlier mistake here and on the Willys’ website listed the String Sextet by Brahms rather than the Viola Quintet.)

The Willys complete the regular subscription season with performances at Immanuel Lutheran on two Fridays, July 21 (with music by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich) and July 28 (with music by Franz Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Both performances are at at 6 p.m.

For more details about the performers and the programs, here is a link:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

But if you do, you should know that Madison’s classical music documentarian and chronicler, Rich Samuels (below), is recording all the concerts to play this fall on his Thursday morning radio program “Anything Goes” on WORT-FM 89.9. Stay tuned for more information about air times.


Classical music: Here is music to mark Memorial Day. What pieces would you choose?

May 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2017, when those soldiers who died in war and service to their country are honored. (Below is an Associated Press photo of the National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.)

Many blogs, newspapers and radio stations list classical music that is appropriate for the occasion.

But one of the very best compilations that The Ear has seen comes this year from Nashville Public Radio.

Perhaps that makes sense because Nashville is such a musical city.

Perhaps it has to do with other reasons.

Whatever the cause, this list gives you modern and contemporary composers and music (John Adams, Joseph Bertolozzi and Jeffrey Ames) as well as tried-and-true classics (Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar, Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin).

It even features some music that The Ear is sure you don’t know.

Take a look and many listens:

http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Do you agree with the choices?

Do you like them or at least some of them?

Which ones?

Which music would you choose to mark today?

Leave a name and, if possible, a link to YouTube in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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