The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
18 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Here are the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition held Friday night before a record audience

June 9, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Co-founders Orange and Dean Schroeder have sent the following announcement about the winners of the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition that was held Friday night in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition was a joyous evening of arias! We had a record audience — we don’t have the final numbers yet, but we ran out of 240 printed ballots and figure there were 250 to 300 people present — despite a widespread power outage on the near west side and severe parking challenges.

The winners, accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, were: Australian soprano Morgan Balfour, first prize (below center, in a photo by Tom Miller); soprano Emily Yocum Black, second prize (below right); and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody, third prize and audience favorite (below left).

We are excited to know that Morgan will be singing in St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, next spring thanks to the London Handel Festival. In addition, she will receive $1,500 in cash and – like all finalists — $500 toward travel costs for competing. Other awards were $1,000 for second place, $750 for third place and $500 for Audience Favorite.

Here are the arias, from opera and oratorios, sung by the three winners:

Morgan Balfour: “Spietati, io vi giurai” from “Rodelinda” and “Mean as he was, he is my brother now … Author of Peace” from “Saul”

Emily Yocum Black: “Art thou not Zaphnath? … Prophetic raptures swell my breast” from “Joseph and His Brethren” and “Credete al mio dolore” from “Alcina.”

Jonathan Woody: “Oh memory, still bitter to my soul! … Opprest with never-ceasing grief” from “Belshazzar” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” from “Messiah.”

Schroeder says: “The seven finalists (below in a photo by Tom Miller) were all excellent, presenting a real challenge for audience members picking their favorite as well as for the judges.” (For names and more biographical information about the finalists and judges, go to https://handelariacompetition.com

Adds Schroeder: “The caliber of applicants gets better and better every year. This year everybody was amazing and one of the judges said he was blown away by the quality of the competition. Yet we still try to make the sure that the competition is friendly and most collegial, not cutthroat.”

All the performances from all the finalists as well as the winners were video recorded and, after they are processed, will be posted on YouTube in about a month. (The Ear will let you know when they are available.)

You can also see and hear most of the finalists from the past six years on YouTube now; and more information about the past six years of the competition is on its home website at https://handelariacompetition.com/past-competitions

Did you go to the competition?

Did you agree with the judges about the winners and the Audience Award?

What did you think of the annual competition?

The Ear wants to hear.


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