The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This summer the Token Creek Festival goes online. The music starts TODAY at 4 p.m. Concerts run daily through Sept. 15 and remain up for this month

September 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival normally occurs in the final weeks of summer, just before Labor Day, in the welcoming rustic comfort of the beautifully converted barn (below) located on the rural farm property of composer John Harbison and violinist Rose Mary Harbison.

With its normal concert season canceled due to Covid-19, the festival is pleased to announce an alternative for the summer almost ended.

Slightly later than usual, “MUSIC FROM THE BARN” is a two-week virtual season, a retrospective of concert compilations from 30 years of performances.

The topical programs will be released daily over the period Sept. 1–15 at 4 p.m. (CDT), and will remain posted and available to “attendees” throughout the month. From anywhere in the world, you can revisit whole programs or individual pieces.

The goal of the series has been to achieve the broadest possible representation of repertoire and artists who have graced the Token Creek stage since the series began in 1989.

To festival-goers, it will come as no surprise that the virtual season emphasizes music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, vocal music, works by artistic director John Harbison and his colleagues, and, of course, jazz.

In addition to the welcoming beauty of the barn and festival grounds, with sparkling creek and abundant gardens and woods, and the convivial intermissions at every concert, one of the features most beloved by audiences is the concert introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and MIT professor John Harbison (below) that begins each program. Happily, these remain a feature of the virtual season as well.

Season Schedule

Tues., Sept. 1: Welcome and introduction from the artistic directors (below and  in the link to the YouTube video at the bottom)

TODAY, Wed., Sept. 2: Founders Recital

Thurs., Sept. 3: Haydn Piano Trios

Fri., Sept. 4: Bach I: Concertos

Sat., Sept. 5: A Vocal Recital (I)

Sun., Sept. 6: Beethoven

Mon., Sept. 7: Contemporaries

Tues., Sept. 8: Early Modernists

Wed., Sept. 9: A Vocal Recital (II): Schubert and Schumann

Thurs., Sept. 10: Jazz 2003-2019

Fri., Sept. 11: Neo-classicists: Pizzetti, Martinu, Stravinsky

Sat., Sept. 12: Schoenberg and His Circle

Sun., Sept. 13: Mozart

Tues., Sept. 14: John Harbison: Other Worlds

Wed., Sept. 15: Bach II: Preludes, Fugues, Arias, Sonatas

Programs will be posted on Token Creek’s YouTube Channel, accessible from the festival website (https://tokencreekfestival.org), which will also host concert details: works, artists, program notes and other information.

All concerts are FREE and open to the browsing public.

In addition to the virtual concert season, the Token Creek Festival is pleased to release two new CDs.

A Life in Concert (below) features music written for Rose Mary Harbison by John Harbison, and performances of diverse music by the two of them. It includes the world premiere recordings of Harbison’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Crane Sightings: Eclogue for Violin and Strings, inspired by frequent encounters with a pair of sandhill cranes at the Wisconsin farm.

Wicked Wit, Ingenious Imagination (below) offers four piano trios by Haydn, a beloved genre the festival has been surveying regularly since 2000.  CDs will be available at the festival website by mid-September.

For more information, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org

https://tokencreekfestival.org/2020-virtual-season/welcome/#


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Classical music: Trevor Stephenson announces the new season of the Madison Bach Musicians on YouTube. It features smaller concerts and familiar comfort music

May 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many concerts are being canceled, it is especially welcome when a local ensemble announces plans for the 2020-21 season.

To announce the 17th season of the Madison Bach Musicians — a period-instrument group that uses historically informed performance practices — the founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below), who also plays the harpsichord, fortepiano and piano, has made and posted a 13-1/2 minute YouTube video.

The season will also be posted on the MBM website in early June, and will also be announced with more details about times and ticket prices via email and postal mailings.

In the video, Stephenson plays the harpsichord. He opens the video with the familiar Aria from the “Goldberg” Variations and closes with two contrasting Gavottes from the English Suite in G minor.

As usual, Stephenson offers insights in the programs that feature some very well-known and appealing works that are sure to attract audiences anxious to once again experience the comfort of hearing familiar music performed live.

One thing Stephenson does not say is that there seems to be fewer ambitious programs and fewer imported guest artists. It’s only a guess, but The Ear suspects that that is because it is less expensive to stage smaller concerts and it also allows for easier cancellation, should that be required by a continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

If the speculation proves true, such an adaptive move is smart and makes great sense artistically, financially and socially given the coronavirus public health crisis.

After all, this past spring the MBM had to cancel a much anticipated, expensive and very ambitious production, with many out-of-town guests artists, of the “Vespers of 1610” by Claudio Monteverdi. Nonetheless, MBM tried to pay as much as it could afford to the musicians, who are unsalaried “gig” workers who usually don’t qualify for unemployment payments.

“Hope and Joy” is a timely, welcome and much-needed theme of the new season.

The new season starts on Saturday night, Oct. 3, at Grace Episcopal Church downtown on the Capitol Square, and then Sunday afternoon, Oct. 4, at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

The program is Haydn and Mozart: songs composed in English and German by Haydn plus songs by Mozart; the great violin sonata in E minor by Mozart; and two keyboard trios, one in C major by Haydn and one in G major by Mozart.

Only four players will be required. They include: Stephenson on the fortepiano; concertmaster Kangwon Kim on baroque violin; James Waldo on a Classical-era cello; and soprano Morgan Balfour (below), who won the 2019 Handel Aria Competition in Madison.

On Saturday night, Dec. 12, in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, near Camp Randall Stadium, MBM will perform its 10th annual holiday concert of seasonal music.

The program includes several selections from the “Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach; a Vivaldi concerto for bassoon with UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) as soloist; and the popular “Christmas Concerto” by Arcangelo Corelli.

On Saturday night, April 24, at Grace Episcopal Church and Sunday afternoon, April 25, at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the MBM will perform a concert of German Baroque masterworks with the internationally renowned baroque violinist Marc Destrubé (below).

The program features Handel and Bach but also composers who are not often played today but who were well known to and respected by Bach and his contemporaries.

Specifically, there will be a suite by Christoph Graupner (below top) and a work by Carl Heinrich Graun (below bottom).

There will also be a concerto grosso by George Frideric Handel and two very well-known concertos by Bach – the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Concerto for Two Violins.

Here is the complete video:

What do you think of the Madison Bach Musicians’ new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Local groups stream videos to entertain home-bound listeners, and perhaps to promote their next seasons. Plus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra cancels and postpones its May concerts

April 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cancellations and postponements aren’t the only effects that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic are having on the local classical music scene.

Many local ensembles – much like such national and international organizations as the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra — are also starting to offer free streamed performances, some of them archival and some of them are specially performed.

Bach Around the Clock even held a virtual festival this year that featured many different original recorded performances spread out over many days and continues.

Why are they doing so?

Certainly to help entertain the public while they weather the boredom and loneliness of social distancing and sheltering in place at home. Music can comfort.

Perhaps they are also doing so as a smart marketing move to stay in the public’s consciousness despite cancellations and to indirectly promote their upcoming seasons.

Here are some examples:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is offering a link to a YouTube performance — by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra below) — of the Dvorak Requiem, which the MSO orchestra and chorus were supposed to perform this weekend but had to cancel.

The video also has a message from music director John DeMain; texts and translations from the Czech; a special pre-concert talk and program notes for the Requiem by J. Michael Allsen; and a link to the MSO’s 2020-21 season.

Here is a link: https://madisonsymphony.org/experience-dvorak-requiem-virtually/

In other MSO news: The concerts with pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms on May 1, 2 and 3 and the open rehearsal on April 30 are now canceled, and the May 5 organ performance has been postponed.

For those who hold tickets for May concerts, the MSO will be announcing options for donation, exchange and refunds sometime this weekend or next week.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), which recently streamed its December concert in the UW’s Hamel Center, has started a special “Coucherto” series – it’s a pun on concerto and couch – of special at-home concerts by individual musicians in the WCO for those listeners who are staying at home.

The project uses social media including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo and at the WCO’s home website. Also included is an invitation by music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO’s next season hasn’t been announced yet, but should be soon.

Here is a link: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/coucherto/

For its part, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which is facing uncertainty about its June concert series, which focuses on Beethoven’s piano trios – is offering selected chamber music performances from its past seasons that are on BDDS’ YouTube channel.

It too has comments and the program lineup for its season this summer.

Here is a link: https://bachdancing.org/watch-listen/video/

Have you seen any of these videos?

What do you think of them?

Dp you think they work as marketing strategies?

Have you discovered sites for streaming classical music that you recommend to others?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What music is helping you get through the Coronavirus by staying home? Help create a Pandemic Playlist

March 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting today, Wisconsin joins other states and countries in proclaiming a stay-at-home emergency condition to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

That means non-essential businesses and schools are closed; restaurants can only deliver food and do pick-up; and residents must stay at home except for essential services and travel such as buying food, seeing a doctor and getting medicine.

For a couple of weeks, many of us have already been spending almost all our time hunkering down at home.

And the Internet and other mass media are full of helpful hints about how to handle the loneliness, fear and anxiety that can come with self-isolation and self-quarantining.

For many, music proves a reliable coping strategy.

Since there are no live concerts to preview or review, now seems like a good time for The Ear to ask readers: What music helps you deal with the isolation of staying at home?

Is listening to music a part of your daily schedule, structure or routine?

Maybe you are using the time to discover new music or neglected composers, works and performers.

Maybe you are using the time to revisit old favorites by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Maybe you prefer darker and deeper, more introverted works such as symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich?

Maybe you prefer the stories and drama of operas by Verdi and Puccini, oratorios by Handel and songs by Schubert?

Maybe, like The Ear, you find the music of Baroque Italian composers, such as the violin concertos by Vivaldi and Corelli, to be a great, upbeat way to start the day with energy and a good mood.

One more modern but neo-classical work that The Ear likes to turn to — a work that is rarely heard or performed live – is the beautiful “Eclogue” for piano and strings by the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

Finzi wrote it as a slow movement to a piano concerto, but then never finished the concerto. The “Eclogue” — a short pastoral poem — was never performed in his lifetime. So it continues to stand alone.

But like so much English pastoral music, the poignant Eclogue feels like sonic balm, some restorative comfort that can transport you to a calmer and quieter place, put you in a mood that you find soothing rather than agitated.

Hear it for yourself and decide by listening to it in the YouTube video at the bottom, then let The Ear know what you think.

Perhaps you have many other pieces to suggest for the same purpose.

But the series of reader suggestions is meant to be ongoing.

The idea is to build a collective “Pandemic Playlist.”

So right now and for this time, please post just ONE suggestion – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section with perhaps what you like about it and why it works for you during this time of physical, psychological and emotional distress from COVID-19.

What do you think of the idea of creating a Pandemic Playlist?

The Ear hopes that you like his choice, and that he and other readers like yours.

Be well and stay well.

Let’s get through this together.

 


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Classical music: Spring arrives today. Here is music to lift your spirits. What music do you like to greet spring?

March 19, 2020
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ALERT: All events, including worship, are canceled at Luther Memorial Church “until further notice,” and that includes the monthly free Just Bach concert scheduled for noon on next Wednesday, March 25. Organizers say they hope the church reopens in time for the Just Bach concert scheduled for April 15.

By Jacob Stockinger

Spring arrives today – Thursday, March 19 – at last!

The Vernal Equinox will occur at 10:49 p.m. CDT.

Given all the fear and anxiety, isolation and discomfort caused by both the coronavirus and self-quarantining at home, maybe some music inspired by spring will lift your spirits.

At the bottom is a two-hour compilation – with more than a million hits – from YouTube with bright and upbeat, tuneful and melodic spring-like music.

The composers are Baroque, Classical and Romantic and include Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi; Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; waltzes by Strauss; and songs without words by Mendelssohn and Grieg.

But the choice of spring music is endless, as you can no doubt also hear by listening to Wisconsin Public Radio today.

Is there a special piece you like to hear when you greet the arrival of spring?

Please leave the composer, title, performer and, if possible, a YouTube link, in the Comment section.

 


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Classical music: Members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will give two concerts this week as part of the centennial season of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as one anniversary celebrating another anniversary.

This week, four members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City will be giving two concerts as part of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The Chamber Music Society is marking its 50th anniversary and is in town this week to help the WUT’s Concert Series celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Here is a link with more background about the special programming for the anniversary season: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/30/classical-music-personal-experience-artistic-excellence-and-historical-importance-drew-pianist-wu-han-and-cellist-david-finckel-into-planning-next-years-centennial-season-at-the-wisconsin-u/

The first concert is tomorrow — Thursday night, March 5 — at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union. The program features two piano quartets and a violin sonatina.

The Ear has seen the Society players before in Madison and has never heard them give anything short of a first-rate performance. 

The piano quartets are the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1, by Czech composer Josef Suk; the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms; and the Violin Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100, by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear Chopin Competition winner and South Korean pianist Song-Jin Cho, play the Gypsy Rondo finale from the Brahms piano quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Personal ties link all three works. Brahms greatly admired Dvorak and helped launch his career. And Dvorak was both the teacher and father-in-law of Suk.

The performers (below, from left) are violinist Arnaud Sussmann, pianist Wu Han, violist Paul Neubauer; and cellist David Finckel.

The wife-and-husband team of Wu Han and David Finckel are the co-music directors of the Chamber Music Society and also the artistic advisors who helped the Wisconsin Union Theater put together its centennial season.

Says Han: Chamber music is a form of music that has the ability to provide comfort in difficult times, escape and inspiration for all. The Musical America’s Musician of the Year award winner adds that it’s those very things that drive her to continue to make music.

The performance is part of the new David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series. More information about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center can be found on their website.

There will also be a pre-concert performance by students of the Suzuki method in Sonora Strings (below) beginning in Shannon Hall at 7 p.m.

For more background as well as how to purchase tickets ($10-$50), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chamber-music-society-of-lincoln-center/

SATURDAY NIGHT

On Saturday night, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., pianist Wu Han (below top) will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its director and conductor Oriol Sans (below bottom).

The program is the Suite No. 1 from the chamber opera “Powder Her Face” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, by Beethoven; and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, by Brahms.

Tickets are $30 for the public, $25 for Union members and UW faculty and staff; and $10 for UW students. For more information about Wu Han and to purchase tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/wu-han-with-uw-symphony/

“Wu Han brings to the Wisconsin Union Theater not only a passion for music, but also authentic excitement about inspiring a love of music in others,” said Amanda Venske, Concert Series coordinator of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee.

The students of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will have the opportunity to learn from Han as they prepare for the Saturday performance.

Patrons can purchase tickets online or at the Memorial Union Box Office. The Wisconsin Union Theater team offers discounted tickets for University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, staff and students as well as Wisconsin Union members.

Other upcoming Concert Series performances are by violinist Gil Shaham with Akira Eguchi on March 28, and superstar soprano Renée Fleming on May 2. The Concert Series is the longest running classical music series in the Midwest.

 


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Classical music: This week brings Baroque music from Just Bach this Wednesday at noon and Sonata a Quattro next Sunday afternoon

November 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week brings authentic Baroque music from two newer groups that employ period instruments and historically informed performance practices: Just Bach and Sonata a Quattro.

The concert for November by Just Bach (below, in a photo by John W. Barker, takes place this Wednesday, Nov. 20, from noon to 12:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave, in Madison.

The performance is free and open to the public, with a good will offering collected.

Performers are: Sarah Brailey, soprano; Lindsey Meekhof, mezzo-soprano; Thore Dosdall, tenor; Paul Rowe, baritone; Linda Pereksta, flute; Kangwon Lee Kim and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

The program opens with the six-minute instrumental Sinfonia from Cantata 209. Just Bach favorite Linda Pereksta will be the featured flute soloist, backed up by the strings-and-organ band. (You can hear the Sinfonia in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Cantata 151 ‘Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kommt‘ (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes) closes the program. Each of the first four movements of this cantata features a different vocal soloist — the serene soprano aria also boasts a lovely flute obbligato — concluding with the chorale in which all take part.

Those who attend are invited to “bring your lunch, bring your ears and your voice, bring a friend, but most of all bring yourself to this stirring program of J.S. Bach.”

The next Just Bach program is Wednesday, Dec. 18, at noon.

For more information, go to:

https://justbach.org/

https://www.facebook.com/events/451732972120968/

SONATA A QUATTRO

This week the Madison-based group Sonata à Quattro (below) will give two performances of its program “A Dark and Stormy Night”:

The program is:

  • Motet: “In furore iustissimae irae” (In the fury of most righteous wrath), RV 626 by Antonio Vivaldi
  • Quartet No. 1 in D Major by Johann Joachim Quantz
  • Cello Sonata in C Minor, Book II No. 6 by Jean-Baptiste Barrière
  • Concerto for 4 in D Minor, TWV 43:d2 by Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Cantata 209: “Non sa che sia dolore” (He does not know what sorrow is) by Johann Sebastian Bach

Sonata à Quattro performers are: Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; Charlie Rasmussen, cello; Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord; and Kristin Knutson, soprano. Special guest artist is flutist Linda Pereksta (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

Says founder and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (below): “Join us for a program of dark and stormy pieces, on period-instruments. Sonata à Quattro’s third season opens with a program exploring the darker side of human experience, from Vivaldi’s motet, burning with godly rage, to Bach’s secular Cantata, deploring the departure of a beloved friend.

“Quantz’ bubbly Flute Quartet in D Major provides some needed moments of optimism, before we turn to the poignant, brooding Cello Sonata by Barrière. Even the viola gets a turn, in the Telemann, to unfold a haunting saga of tragic beauty.

“But the composers do not leave us in despair; each one leads the listener through the dark night of the soul, to the morning after.”

The Bach Cantata opens with an instrumental Sinfonia, heard in the YouTube video at the bottom, that features flutist Linda Pereksta, who also plays in the works by Quantz and Telemann.

For more information, go to:

https://sonataaquattro.com

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Classical music: Free “Just Bach” concerts change the starting time to NOON and begin their second season this Wednesday at Luther Memorial Church. Here are programs for this semester

September 15, 2019
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The Ear has received the following announcement from the organizers and performers of Just Bach, which had a very successful inaugural run last season:

Join us on this coming Wednesday, Sept. 18, as we kick off our second season of “Just Bach” concerts. The concerts are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, with a goodwill offering collected.

The Just Bach concert series – which features Baroque period instruments and historically informed performance practices — resumes as part of the weekly free noontime “Music at Midday” concerts in the gorgeous sanctuary (below) of Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave. For more information and a schedule of other performances and performers in the series,  go to: luthermem.org/music-at-midday

PLEASE NOTE: While the one-hour Just Bach concerts last season started at 1 p.m., this season they will start at NOON.

The photo (below, from left) shows three performers for this upcoming first concert: soprano Sarah Brailey, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and traverse flutist Linda Pereksta.

The season-opener is an instrumental program titled “Gamba Sonatas Without the Gambas.” (Gamba is the Italian word for leg and was used to describe what would evolve into the modern cello.)

Of the three sonatas written for viola da gamba (an early version of the modern cello) and harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029, we’ll hear the first and third, but in alternate versions.

First on the program is the hauntingly beautiful Sonata No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 1029, performed on viola da braccio (baroque viola) and harpsichord. (You can hear the opening movement of the original version, played on a modern cello and piano by Janos Starker and Gyorgy Sebok, respectively, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Following that will be the jaunty Sonata in G Major BWV 1039, the Trio Sonata arrangement for cello, flute and harpsichord that Bach made of the Sonata No. 1, BWV 1027.

Just Bach regulars traverse flutists Linda Pereksta and Monica Steger and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt return to the stage. They will be joined by cellist Lindsey Crabb (below top) and UW-Madison harpsichordist John Chapell Stowe (below bottom on the right), who are making their debuts at Just Bach.

Just Bach organizer and regular performer, as well as UW graduate student and professional touring soprano, Sarah Brailey (below) leads the chorale sing-along, a beloved audience-participation feature of these programs. 

Bring your lunch, bring your ears and your voice, and bring a friend, but most of all bring yourself to enjoy the sublime music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here is a schedule of upcoming Just Bach concerts this fall, all taking place on Wednesdays at noon:

Oct. 16:  Cantata 158 Der Friede sei mit dir (Peace be with you)

Nov. 20:  Cantata 151 Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kommt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes)

Dec. 18:  Christmas Pastiche

For more information, including tips on parking, go to the website justbach.org


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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