The Well-Tempered Ear

The Madison Early Music Festival joins the UW-Madison School of Music’s regular program and undergoes a major revamping. There will be no more separate summer events, and the two directors will retire next spring

March 10, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

After refining the format over the past 20 years, the Madison Early Music Festival (below) has grown into a popular event that is recognized regionally, nationally and internationally. It usually takes place for about 10 days in July.

But no longer.

The Ear has received the following updates from the two co-founders and co-directors, singers Cheryl-Bensman Rowe and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe.

Curiously, no reasons or causes are given for the major changes and revamping, or for the cancellation of the event this summer.

The Ear suspects it has something to do with the lack of funding and the reorganizations and consolidations being carried out because of the budgetary effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the UW-Madison, the whole UW System and the performing arts scene in general.

But that could be completely wrong. We will probably find out more details in the near future.

For more information and background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2021/02/01/memf-school-of-music-announce-administrative-partnership/

And to sound off, please leave your reactions to the news in the comment section.

Here is the letter from the Rowes (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot):

Dear MEMF Supporters,

It is difficult to believe that February is over and spring is on its way. We hope everyone is having luck scheduling coronavirus vaccines, and that you have all stayed healthy throughout this past year. 

We are writing to give you advance notice of the latest MEMF news before you read it in an upcoming press release.

Due to programming realignment in the UW-Madison Division of the Arts, the Madison Early Music Festival will become a program of the Mead Witter School of Music, which will be our new administrative home.

After much discussion with the Director of the School of Music and the Interim Director of the Division of the Arts, the details of the move have been finalized. 

The School of Music is excited to bring MEMF into its programming, and would like MEMF to be an integral part of the academic year so more students can have an opportunity to work with professionals in the field of early music.

At this point, in order to focus on this goal, the decision has been made to discontinue the summer festival in its current (pre-pandemic) format.(You can hear a sample of that in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We know this is disappointing news, but at the same time we are excited that MEMF concerts, lectures and classes will now be offered in some capacity throughout the year. 

Although MEMF will be taking a different direction than the one we have all known and loved over the past 20 years, we are thrilled that it will continue to provide early music learning and presentation opportunities through this new collaboration.

We also want to announce that the two of us will be retiring from MEMF in the spring of 2022 and new leadership will take the helm. 

Current plans are to present a celebratory MEMF concert and workshop next spring with School of Music students and faculty and former MEMF participants and faculty.

We want all of you to know that we appreciate everything you have done for MEMF. Some of you have been involved for 21 years! 

We are grateful for your support, the friendships we have made, and all the beautiful music we have heard and made together. The success of the festival would not have been possible without each and every one of you.

This is an exciting new journey for MEMF, although different from what we have known and experienced. We hope that you will continue to be involved in MEMF in its new format, and we hope to see you in the spring of 2022!

Thank you for all your generosity in so many ways,

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, co-founders and co-artistic directors of the Madison Early Music Festival


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


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