The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNMIgZAx2gQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2jAweLVLRk

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Sound Out Loud and Madison Public Philosophy explore cultural appropriation in three FREE concerts and discussions over the coming week

October 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Musicians from the Sound Out Loud ensemble (below) and Madison Public Philosophy are teaming up to present an interactive exploration of cultural exchange, appreciation, appropriation, and assimilation in music, from Claude Debussy‘s Pagodas (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to the hit song The Lion Sleeps Tonight to Irving Berlin’s nostalgic White Christmas.

There will be three performances:

Monday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at Lathrop Hall’s Virginia Harrison Parlor (1002 University Avenue, below);

Saturday, Oct. 28, at 1:30 p.m. at the American Family Insurance‘s DreamBank (1 N. Pinckney Street , below);

and Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2:30 p.m. at the Arts + Literature Laboratory (2021 Winnebago Street, below).

Audience members will hear live music performed by Sound Out Loud accompanied by historical context and analysis from UW-Madison musicologist Andrea Fowler.

After the performances, Madison Public Philosophy will lead a discussion about the musical examples. Audience members will be asked to decide which of the following categories the examples fall into: exchange, appropriation, appreciation, and assimilation.

The events are free, but donations are accepted. Each program will last just over one hour.

For more information, got o these websites:

https://www.soundoutloudensemble.com

https://publicphilosophysite.wordpress.com

About the Organizations:

Madison Public Philosophy is a group of philosophy students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its mission is to share philosophy with all members of the community through educational programs and public performances.

Sound Out Loud is a new music performance ensemble currently based out of Madison, Wisconsin. The group seeks to expand the realm of possibilities within the chamber ensemble repertoire through the implementation of experimental techniques, innovative performance practice, and the use of live electronics.


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