The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Organist Greg Zelek, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will give a FREE celebratory recital at First United Methodist Church this coming Tuesday night

November 10, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“Greg Zelek (below), the new principal organist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ and Series, will present a FREE public organ recital on this coming Tuesday night, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 203 Wisconsin Avenue, in downtown Madison.

“The evening’s program of masterpieces includes: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the Organ Sonata in F minor, Op. 65, No. 1, by Felix Mendelssohn; the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, by J.S. Bach (heard performed by Zelek in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the Organ Sonata in D minor, Op. 42, No. 1, by Alexandre Guilmant.

“A public reception follows the recital where people can share their thoughts about the program and meet the artist.

“Zelek says he relishes the creative aspect of playing the organ. Because no two instruments are alike, every time he sits down at a new console he reinvents the repertoire that he has played thousands of times for that specific instrument and that specific space.

“Zelek adds: “It gives me the opportunity to be as creative as possible when it comes to the selecting of different sounds and colors for each individual instrument and composition.”

“The First Church organ console (below top), as well as the one (below bottom) at the Overture Center, is in front of the audience, offering the organist opportunities to interact and engage with them.

“I speak to the audience in between pieces,” Zelek explains. “Having a greater understanding of the music sheds light onto its immense beauty and enhances the listener’s appreciation of the performance.

“The organ is also such a physical instrument. When the audience can see what the organist is doing, it draws everybody in. There is so much going on. It’s not just the hands and the feet, but also the different buttons we’re pushing and sounds we’re generating from the instrument. It is a full body workout when I play! The audience should never be bored.”

“Zelek’s recital is part of the 180th anniversary celebration of First United Methodist Church as well as the 25th anniversary of its Austin organ.

“Admission for the recital is FREE with donation envelopes available to support The Arts program at First Church. The church has a deep tradition in featuring varied musical offerings and provides much needed rehearsal and performing space for local music and performing arts groups.”

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Classical music: The fall concert series by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras starts this Saturday and includes the Wisconsin premiere of Martinu’s Symphony No. 3

November 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras have sent information about their upcoming fall concert this coming Saturday and the following Saturday:

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) opens their fall concert series on Saturday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 18, with the WYSO Youth Orchestra performing Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s Symphony No. 3.  (You can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“All our orchestras and ensembles have been digging deep into some amazing repertoire this fall,” said Interim Artistic Director Randal Swiggum (below).  “WYSO fans will love these concerts—a great mix of beloved classics like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol” and the Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, and some compelling new works.  The students are super-excited to share it.”

Martinu’s fiercely energetic Symphony No. 3 was originally premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1945 while the composer (below) was a refugee from the Nazis; but the piece has not been performed by any orchestra in Wisconsin in 72 years.

“This is a remarkable piece,” Swiggum said, “Always rhythmic and exciting, it has really challenged the kids with its unusual colors and ideas.”

Tickets for the fall concert series are available at the door, and are $10 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under.

The full concert repertoire is available at www.wysomusic.org/fall-2017-repertoire/.

Evelyn Steenbock Fall Concert Dates

  • Saturday, November 11:
    1:30 pm – Percussion Ensemble (below), Harp Ensemble, Philharmonia Orchestra
    4:00 pm – Concert Orchestra, Opus One, Sinfonietta
    Mills Concert Hall, 455 N. Park St., Madison, WI
  • Saturday, November 18
    7:00 pm – Youth Orchestra
    Middleton Performing Arts Center, 2100 Bristol St., Middleton, WI


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
2 Comments

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: Farley’s underappreciated Salon Piano Series shines again with duo-pianists Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro

September 29, 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

Roberto Plano appeared last season in a four-piano concert in the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. This year, to open the 2017-18 season in the same series on last Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based pianist brought along his pianist wife, Paola Del Negro, for a duo program of utter fascination. (They are below.)

The first half of the program was devoted to music for piano-four hands, the duo alternating between primo and secondo parts. Robert Schumann’s six “Pictures From the East,” Op. 66, are examples of the composer’s important duo output.

Burgmein was the pen name of the covert composer better known as the influential music promoter and publisher Giulio Ricordi (below). His set of six duet pieces evoking characters from the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte tradition followed.

Then came two of the Hungarian Dances (No. 2 and 5) by Johannes Brahms in their original piano-duo form. (You can hear them play Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ending the program’s first half was one of its biggest hits. After composing the great orchestral cycle of six patriotic scenes called “My Country,” Bedrich Smetana (below) made four-hand piano arrangements of each. Plano and Del Negro played that for the popular “Moldau.” This arrangement managed to capture a good deal of the orchestral original’s coloristic and dramatic effects, and was played with particular power.

The entire second half was devoted exclusively to a major work by Brahms, his Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. This work was created first as a string quintet, then later discarded. But the two-piano version (below) was superseded by Brahms’ transformation of its material into a Quintet for Piano and Strings (reckoned as plain Op. 34).

The Quintet — which, by the way will be performed by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet in the Salon Series next March — is, of course, one of the composer’s masterpieces. But the Two-Piano Sonata survives on its own merits. The parallel material is presented cogently, all of it redistributed in consistently keyboard terms, as against the mixed media of the Quintet.

The duo played it with the necessary Brahmsian burliness and power, and on Farley’s wonderful vintage pianos it sounded simply magnificent.

As an encore, the duo played a two-piano arrangement of an energetic tango piece by Astor Piazzolla, but then followed with another, in this case, an eight-hand piano trifle in which the Plano-Del Negro duo were joined as parents by their two young daughters (below). The audience could hardly resist that!

Plano and Del Negro are great discoveries. And once again, the Salon Piano Series has shown itself as one of the exciting, if too-little-known of Madison’s musical treasures.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet will open its new season this Saturday night with music by Haydn, Dvorak and Ravel. 

September 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ancora String Quartet (below in a photo by Barry Lewis) will open its 17th season this Saturday night with a varied program. Members, from left, are: Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello.

The ASQ members play with many other professional groups, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians. Cellist Whitcomb teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) on Madison’s near west side at 1833 Regent Street.

The stylistically varied program includes: The “Sunrise” Quartet, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn; “Cypresses Nos. 2, 5 and 10 by Antonin Dvorak, and the String Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel.

Tickets at the door are $15 for the general public; $12 for seniors and students; and $6 for children under 12.

A post-concert reception to meet the members of the quartet is included in the ticket.

Another performance will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Kirk Denmark Theatre, UW-Rock County. The performance is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Here are some program notes from the Ancora String Quartet:

“The opening recital features something for every musical taste.

“First on the program is a superb example of mature Haydn, from its exquisite opening theme depicting the rising sun — a favorite image among composers — to the fleet Finale which gets faster and ever faster, racing towards its triumphant conclusion.

“Dvorak first set the poetic cycle Cypresses for voice and piano, but his own transcription for string quartet retains the lyrical vocal style of these miniature character pieces.” (You can hear Cypress No. 2 at the bottom in a YouTube video. The Ear considers Dvorak’s “Cypresses” to be little gems that are literally small masterpieces that are not as well-known as they should be. They make great encores.)

“The Ravel quartet brings French Impressionism at its finest, with iridescent colors, jazzy rhythms and propulsive energy.”


Classical music: The Ear listens with eyes open and finds interesting photos at concerts

August 14, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It was the famous 20th-century composer and pioneering modernist Igor Stravinsky (below) who advised us to listen to music with our eyes open.

For one, it fosters our appreciation of the sheer physicality of making music. Musicians are, as the pianist Vladimir Horowitz once observed, athletes of the small muscles.

If you listen with your eyes open you can see a lot of things.

You can see how musicians give each other cues.

You can see the expression on their faces, the joy and pleasure that making music gives them.

You can observe how different members of the audience react differently to different music.

You can appreciate the many kinds of instruments with the eye-catching shapes, sizes and colors.

And you can see patterns that make for good photographs – if taking photos is allowed.

Of course even if it is, there are rules to follow so that the musicians and other audience members are not disturbed: no flash and no shutter sound are the main ones besides the rule of intellectual property and the forbidding of taking photographs – kind of a difficult one to enforce these days, what with all the smart phones out there.

But some musicians and groups are very friendly and open to photographing, especially if the photos are strictly personal and not for commercial use to earn a profit.

At the last regular concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber players a little over two weeks ago, The Ear found two that showed patterns for good composition.

It’s just fun. But productive fun that can capture the fascination with music and musicians, especially if you sit close to the performers.

Here they are.

First is “Three Clarinets,” a portrait of guest artist Michael Maccaferri, from the Grammy-winning chamber music group eighth blackbird, with the three clarinets he used in the Argentinian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” The black verticality of the clarinets is heightened by the same quality of the music stands.

The second is “Two Cellos and One Violin,” taken during the bows after the string sextet version of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante.” The shapes and shades of brown wood draw the eye.

Tell The Ear of you like this kind of photo essay and want to see more of them on the blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The 150th anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth will be celebrated with two concerts on this coming Sunday afternoon and Monday night in Spring Green. They feature the world premiere of a work commissioned from Madison-based composer Scott Gendel.

August 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Effi Casey, the director of music at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, writes:

“I am writing to you to let you know about special concerts at Taliesin on Sunday, Aug. 6, at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., which I will direct in the Hillside Theater at Taliesin.

“The concerts are a collaboration of Taliesin Preservation and Rural Musicians Forum as part of the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (below).

“I commissioned UW-Madison prize-winning graduate Scott Gendel to write “That Which Is Near,” a piece for choir, string quartet and piano, and we have enjoyed working on it. (NOTE: Gendel will discuss his work in more detail in tomorrow’s posting on this blog.) It will receive its world premiere at these two concerts.

“Other works to be performed include: “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland; “Past Life Melodies” by Sarah Hopkins; the spiritual “Ev’ry Time I Feel de Spirit”; “Hymn to Nature” (from the Wright-inspired opera “Shining Brow,” which is the English translation of the Welsh word “Taliesin” and stands for the hillside location) by UW-Madison graduate Daron Hagen; “Song of Peace” by Jean Sibelius”; and the “Sanctus” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the Mass in B Minor) by Johann Sebastian Bach and spoken words.

“The participation and enthusiasm of the singers of the greater Spring Green community are most rewarding already.

TICKETS

“Tickets are available on-line at RuralMusiciansForum.org. Please see the “Purchase Tickets Here” link to Brown Paper Tickets on the right-hand side of the RMF home page.

“Alternatively, tickets can be purchased at the Arcadia Bookstore in downtown Spring Green.

“Ticket prices range from $15 to $30. The $30 tickets for the Sunday Aug. 6 concert include concert admission and a festive champagne post-concert reception with composer Scott Gendel, the musicians and the chorus.

“Tickets for the concert only on Aug. 6 or 7 are $20 or $15 for seniors and students. Children 12 and under are free, but please pick up a free ticket for them to be sure they get a seat at the concert.” (Below is the Hillside Theater.)

WRIGHT AND MUSIC

To The Ear, a special concert seems the perfect way to mark the Wright sesquicentennial.

Just take a look, thanks to research by Effi Casey (below), at what Wright himself said and thought about music:

“… Never miss the idea that architecture and music belong together. They are practically one.” (FLW)

“While Wright claimed architecture as the “mother art,” his experience in music was early, visceral, and eternal. Of his childhood he wrote: “…father taught him (the boy) to play (the piano). His knuckles were rapped by the lead pencil in the impatient hand that would sometimes force his hand into position at practice time on the Steinway Square in the sitting room. But he felt proud of his father too. Everybody listened and seemed happy when father talked on Sundays when he preached, the small son dressed in his home-made Sunday best, looked up at him, absorbed in something of his own making that would have surprised the father and the mother more than a little if they could have known.”(FLW’s Autobiography).

“In his later years, Wright himself preached musical integration in his own Sunday talks to the Fellowship:

“Of all the fine arts, (Wright exclaimed in a Sunday morning talk to his apprentices) music it was that I could not live without – as taught by my father. (I) found in it (a) sympathetic parallel to architecture. Beethoven and Bach were princely architects in my spiritual realm…”

“But more than words, it was in practice where he conveyed music to those in his sphere, from a piano designed into a client’s home (for someone who may or may not have been able to play it!), to his own score of concert grand pianos at the two Taliesins (he claimed “the piano plays me!”).

“In a gesture of delight and exuberance, as it is told by those who experienced it, Wright had a gramophone player installed at the top of his Romeo and Juliet tower (below is the rebuilt tower) at Taliesin to have Bach’s Mass in B Minor resound over the verdant hills and valleys.

Adds Casey: “Architecture is indeed a musical parallel of composition, rhythm, pattern, texture, and color. As Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an “edifice of sound” (FLW) built upon the famous first eight notes, so Wright’s overture of verse expresses a singular IDEA, played in stone, wood, and concrete, from superstructure to matching porcelain cup.”

video


Classical music education: Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra performs an “encore” concert of music by Corelli, Mozart and Britten this Friday night

July 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below) is a summer training orchestra dedicated to providing an intensive chamber orchestra experience for advanced high school and college musicians, ages 12-35.

“MAYCO was founded in 2011 by music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below). The ensemble prepares a full program over the course of each of its one-week summer sessions, culminating in a public concert.

“We had planned for last summer’s “Finale!” concert to be MAYCO’s last, but at the urging of disappointed students, we decided to stage a comeback. Student response has been incredible, and we hope to keep the program alive into the future.

“This summer, we will present a single concert, “Encore!”, featuring works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Benjamin Britten and Arcangelo Corelli.

“The program of bewitching atmosphere and stark contrasts will be performed this Friday night, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

“The program opens with Corelli’s vivacious Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 4 in D major. Corelli’s Baroque concerti grossi all feature a solo group (“concertino”) of two violins and cello opposed by the full string band (the “ripieno”).

“Our performance will feature MAYCO concertmaster Thalia Coombs (below), principal cellist (and former conducting apprentice) Majestica Lor, and violinist Glen Kuenzi (a returning high school player now entering the UW School of Music, selected by audition).

“Benjamin Britten’s nocturnal Serenade, written for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and virtuoso hornist Dennis Brain, sets an enchanting array of English poetry, including texts by William Blake, John Keats and Ben Jonson.

“Set in seven movements bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue for unaccompanied horn, the work traverses a wide range of emotions and orchestral colors. Joining the orchestra will be tenor Dennis Gotkowski, a recent doctoral graduate of the UW) and hornist Joanna Schulz (below, a current DMA candidate), who plays with the Wingra Wind Quintet.

“The concert will conclude with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the so-called “Great” G minor. Long beloved for its tempestuous character and affective power, it captivates players and audiences alike with its intense chromaticism and unrelenting darkness. It is a tremendously compelling piece, and we are excited to perform it this week. (You can hear the famous opening depicted with an unusual bar graph in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Tickets are $10 cash at the door; by donation for students.

“More information about the MAYCO and its programming can be found on our website, http://mayco.org


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs Bach’s “Magnificat” and other music by Handel and Schütz this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Madison and Whitewater

April 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat with full orchestra and additional works by Bach, George Frideric Handel and Heinrich Schütz on this coming Friday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, in Madison.

There will be an additional concert on Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at the Young Auditorium, UW-Whitewater, 930 West Main Street, in Whitewater.

 

The Baroque splendor of Bach’s Magnificat will be performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir with its professional orchestra, Sinfonia Sacra.

Featured soloists include trumpet virtuoso John Aley, oboist Marc Fink, violinist Leanne League, New York-based tenor (and former Madisonian) Alex Gmeinder (below top) and mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom, in a photo by Michael Cooper.)

Sharing billing with the Bach is Handel’s impressive Utrecht Te Deum, which, like the Magnificat, exalts in the colors of voices, trumpets, timpani, oboes, flutes and strings.

Rounding out the program are Bach’s double-choir motet, Fürchte dich nicht (Be Not Afraid), and a work by Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schütz: Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All Our God).

Inspired by Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke (depicted below), the Magnificat is one of Bach’s most glorious and varied pieces. Its music offers a sampling of every style of music in Bach’s repertoire as a composer.

Imposing, concerto-like movements crowned by brilliant trumpet fanfares highlight the full chorus, whereas solo arias, duets and trios deepen the mood of the text in counterpoint with constantly changing instrumental colors—from lush strings to playful flutes to the dolorous oboe d’amore. (You can hear the “Magnificat” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In the solo movements the professional singers share the stage with highly accomplished members of the choir including Christopher Eggers and Nicole McCarty; Madison Savoyards regulars Bill Rosholt and Natalie Falconer; and many others.

The members of Sinfonia Sacra are drawn from the rosters of the Madison Symphony, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, and the music faculties of UW-Madison, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres. Artistic Director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs choral activities at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 28 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 and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Advance tickets for the April 30 performance at Young Auditorium in Whitewater are available from www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/tickets


Classical music: Old music and new music mingle superbly at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival through a concert with viols, a countertenor and a new composition by John Harbison

September 1, 2016
2 Comments

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 12 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 and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The second of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s three public concerts, which took place on Tuesday evening, was a study in the old and the new, and the mingling thereof.

The program title was, in fact, “Viol Music, Then and Now.” The performing group was the Second City Musick Consort of Viols of Chicago (below)  — three players from there, plus visitor Brady Lanier.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Much, but hardly all, of their contributions were consort pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, although a certain number of transcriptions — ironically, of later music — were involved.

Three Fantasias for three viols by William Byrd and one by John Jenkins for four viols were prime specimens. Two pairs of examples from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias in 4 Parts represented a late contribution to the consort literature, but were probably intended — primarily, if not exclusively — for members of the violin family, not viols.

Token Creek viols JWB

With the addition of countertenor Nathan Medley, groups of “consort songs” were presented: three by Byrd and one each by four different composers of the late-Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. These were capped by one of the favorite airs of Purcell, “Fairest Isle”— which is a part of his large “semi-opera” King Arthur.

Token Creek viols and countertenor closeup JWB

The program’s centerpiece, however, was a new work by festival co-founder and co-artistic director, John Harbison (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow and who teaches at MIT.

John Harbison MIT

The nature and the scoring of this work, The Cross of Snow, was defined by the patron who commissioned it. This was local businessman William Wartmann (below), who intended it as a tribute to his deceased wife, the painter and singer Joyce Wartmann.

wiiliam wartmann

It was understood from the outset that it would be written for countertenor and consort of viols, and that the texts set would come from 19th-century poetic literature.

The choice eventually fell on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lost his wife tragically, in a fire. The three poems set are: The Cross of Snow, Suspira and “Some day, some day.” All of them deal with the deep and enduring pain over the loss of a loved one. The three settings are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude for the consort alone. (You can hear the poem “The Cross of Snow” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Harbison has a strong sense of tradition and a genuine sympathy for Baroque music. Still, in this composition he by no means attempts simply to imitate long-past styles. While he is interested in exploring the special coloring and harmonics of the viols, he also brings to them a lot of the playing techniques familiar from writing for modern stringed instruments, but alien to viols. Indeed, the instrumental role in this work could pretty easily be transferred from viols to modern strings.

Nevertheless, Harbison’s stylistic assimilations run deep. The five movements, and especially the quite contrapuntal Postlude, are built upon allusions to chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). And, quite wisely, the consort played transcriptions of three such pieces in conjunction with Harbison’s score.

Bach1

Moreover, it was decided to perform Harbison’s new work twice, once in each half of the concert. This was most helpful in allowing a deepened appreciation of the emotional content of both the poetry and the music. The vocal lines are strongly etched, and were beautifully sung by countertenor Medley, a superb artist.

With the final program, on this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the spotlight will be exclusively on Franz Schubert (below) — his “Die Schoene Muellerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) song cycle and the famous “Trout” Piano Quintet — music in a world between the two evoked by this concert.

Schubert etching

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


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