The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: WQXR radio names 19 musicians to watch in ’19. What do you think of the choices? Who would you add?

January 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What will 2019 bring in the way of classical music?

What and who should we be looking at and paying attention to?

WQXR — the famed classical radio station in New York City – recently published its list of 19 to watch in ‘19, with detailed reasons for and explanations of their picks.

It seems like a pretty good choice to The Ear, although there is always something of a parlor game aspect to such projects.

Nonetheless, the list covers a fine variety – instrumentalists and vocalists, young and old, American and international, the well-known and the up-and-coming such as the opera singer Devone Tines (below, in a photo by Nikolai Schukoff).

Some names will be familiar to Madison audiences – such as pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Nicola Benedettti, the JACK Quartet and cellist Steven Isserlis — especially through their live appearances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to the list: https://www.wqxr.org/story/wqxr-presents-19-19-artists-collaborations-upcoming-year/

The Ear can think of some other musicians that he would add to the list.

An especially deserving one of them is the young American virtuoso pianist George Li (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Born in China and brought as a child to the United States by his parents, Li attended Harvard and just finished his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. (At the bottom, you can hear Li play virtuosic music by Liszt and Horowitz in the YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert at National Public Radio or NPR.)

Li won the silver medal in the 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and had a lot of people talking about the energy and excitement of his playing. He was praised for both outstanding technical prowess and deep expressiveness.

He then took first prize at a piano competition in Paris.

Ever since, he has been steadily booked. At 23, the amiable Li has already toured China, Japan and Russia and seems to have a very busy schedule ahead of him, judging by his posts on Instagram.

He has also released his first recording on the Warner Classics label, a fine CD that received many positive reviews from critics, including this one.

The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March,” Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” and Consolation No. 3 and the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

Given all the concertos he is now performing, it would not surprise one to see his next recording be a concerto, possibly the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto N. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which brought him instant acclaim.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.georgelipianist.com

And here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Li

Keep your ears and eyes on George Li.

What do you think of the choices made by WQXR?

Who would you add to the list of musicians to watch in 2019, and why?

If possible, maybe you can include a YouTube link to a performance, live or recorded, in your comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” marks 10 years with another sold-out performance and two new soloists this Friday night. Then starting Saturday, it’s on to “The Nutcracker”

December 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

There is no more iconic piece of classical music for the holiday season than the oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. (You can hear the famous “Hallelujah” Chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For 10 years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir and four guest soloists (all forces from a previous performance are in the photo below) have been bringing the masterwork to Madison. And it usually plays to a full house.

This year’s performance once again takes place at 7 p.m. this Friday night, Dec. 7, at the Blackhawk Church, 8629 Brader Way in Middleton. And once again, all 800 seats are sold out.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-1/

“It is very successful and has become a real tradition,” says WCO’s Chief Operating Officer Sue Ellen McGuire. “We have people and families who come year after year.”

But that does not mean each year’s performance, both acclaimed by critics and popular with the public, is a repetition of the previous year’s.

True, some things carry over, such as the longtime soprano soloist Sarah Lawrence and bass soloist Peter Van de Graaff (below), who is also the overnight resonant voice of classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio via The Beethoven Satellite Network.

“It is such a great masterpiece that I feel I can play around with it somewhat and make each year’s performance distinctive and different,” says WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Some years, he says, he cuts out or adds certain choruses; or changes the intermission break; or alters the makeup of the instruments or choruses; or uses different soloists, or continues to adapt to and adopt early music practices.

Take this year. For the first time, the performance will include two singers who competed in the annual Handel Aria Competition held in Madison: mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk (a finalist in 2017), and tenor Gene Stenger (bottom left, the second prize winner and audience favorite in 2017).

“It’s a no-brainer and a natural fit to use the world-class talent that takes part in a local event,” says Sewell, who is also the music director of the symphony orchestra in San Luis Obispo in California.

And for those of you who wonder what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does after Concerts on the Square end in the summer and before its Masterworks series starts in January, the answer is marking the holidays.

In addition to “Messiah,” the WCO will accompany the Madison Ballet’s performances of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” that take place between Dec. 8 and Dec. 26 in the Overture Center. For details and tickets, go to: https://www.madisonballet.org/nutcracker/


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 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 University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: Singer David Daniels is accused of drugging and raping a young opera singer

August 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

More allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault keep emerging from the world of classical music, even as the #MeToo movement is again in the headlines with accusations and denials about the movie star Asia Argento having sex with a minor.

The latest allegation is an accusation by a young opera singer who says that in 2010 he was drugged and raped by David Daniels (below), who is world-famous as a countertenor and who teaches at the University of Michigan, where he is now on leave.

Included in the allegation is Daniels’ husband Scott Walters, who is a conductor and who is accused of participating in the drug and rape incident.

Here is a well-researched and well-reported story from National Public Radio (NPR):

https://www.npr.org/2018/08/22/640945881/opera-singer-david-daniels-accused-of-rape

And here is a link to the story in The New York Daily News, the newspaper that first broke the story. That version also has photos of the accuser and Scott Walters.

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-news-stasi-singer-claims-rape-classical-music-stars-20180821-story.html


Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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Classical music: Performances by this year’s seven Handel Aria Competition finalists are now on YouTube

July 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even if they change your opinion about who should have won what prize in this year’s fifth annual Handel Aria Competition, it’s too late.

That’s the thing about a competition: No second-guessing and no second chances — at least not this year.

But it’s not too late to enjoy the competition all over again

This past week, 14 performances by all seven finalists, who did two each, were posted on YouTube.

Here is the official announcement:

“The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce that first prize in the 5th annual competition, held on June 9 in Madison, Wisconsin, went to mezzo-soprano Nian Wang. Wang performed two fiery Handel arias, “Where Shall I Fly?” from Hercules and “Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi” from Serse (Xerxes).

Wang (below in a photo by Mary Gordon) is a New York-based mezzo-soprano originally from Nanjing, China. She graduated from the opera program at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in 2014 was selected as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow.

“Along with Wang, tenor Gene Stenger (below left, in a photo by David Peterson) won second prize and the audience favorite award, while mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below right) took third prize in the competition.

“Seven finalists (below), selected from a field of more than 100 singers, each sang two arias accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (top to bottom, left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen, Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, Craig Trompeter and Alessandra Visconti served as the professional judges for this year’s competition.

Every finalist received some votes for the hotly contested audience favorite prize.

The Handel Aria Competition was established in 2013 to encourage emerging singers to explore the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel. It is held annually in Mills Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The competition, founded by Carol “Orange” and Dean Schroeder (below), was inspired by Mr. Schroeder’s passion for Handel’s operatic works.

Please note:  The arias by all seven finalists can now be seen on our YouTube channel. (As an example, winner Nina Wang‘s two arias are at the bottom.)

Bios of the winners and the other four finalists are on our web site.”


Classical music: The fifth annual Handel Aria Competition is this Friday night – and the event has grown into a major event with broad cross-cultural appeal

June 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In a short time, it has become one of the year’s MUST-HEAR local events for fans of Baroque music, fine singing, and the music of composer George Frideric Handel.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition will take place.

Handel Aria Competition tickets are $15 for general admission, and will be available at the door.

For the third year, the Madison Bach Musicians, led by the keyboardist founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson, will accompany the seven finalists who were selected from over 100 applicants from China, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and 26 states including Hawaii.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen (who studied at the UW-Madison), Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, there will be a cash prize for Audience Favorite.

The Handel Aria Competition is an annual event held in Madison, Wisconsin to promote the performance of Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

Once connected to the Madison Early Music Festival in July, it has evolved into a separate event due to logistics and staffing.

Founders Dean and Orange Schroeder (below) are enthusiasts of George Frideric Handel’s music and lifelong supporters of the arts.

They write:

“In the spring of 2013, we started the Handel Aria Competition with no real experience, using only the Handel Singing Competition in London – the world’s only, at that time – as a model. We were inspired by the recent groundswell of interest in Handel’s operas and oratorios, most of which have been rarely performed for some 300 years!”

Since then, the competition has grown from 50 to 105 applicants and features orchestral accompaniment as well as large, enthusiastic and often partisan audiences.

You can follow the competition, with news and background stories on the Facebook page for the Handel Aria Competition at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=handel%20aria%20competition

For more information, including extensive biographies of the finalists and the results of past competitions as well as advice about how to apply for the competition and how to support it, go to the website HandelAriaCompetition.com

Countertenor Eric Jurenas, winner of the 2016 competition, can be heard in the YouTube video below:


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians perform their sixth annual Baroque holiday concert this coming Saturday night. Plus, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Messiah” on Friday night is close to selling out

December 5, 2016
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its acclaimed music director Andrew Sewell are pretty busy these days playing the accompanying music for the Madison Ballet‘s multiple performances of Peter Tchaikovsky‘s holiday ballet “The Nutcracker.”

Then on this coming Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton, the WCO, the WCO Chorus, the Festival Choir of Madison and guest soloists, all under the baton of Sewell, also give their annual and usually sold-out performance of George Frideric Handel‘s oratorio “Messiah.” The Ear has been told that this year’s performance is also close to selling out to. For more information and tickets, go to: 

http://www.wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah-at-blackhawk-church-middleton/

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. this Saturday night, Dec. 10, the Madison Bach Musicians (below top) will give their sixth annual Baroque Holiday Concert.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-all-singing

The event will once again be held in the beautiful and sonorous sanctuary (below) of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue.

mbm-baroque-holiday-2015-audence-and-players

MBM holiday 2014 Marc Vallon on bassoon JWB

There is a free pre-concert lecture by the always witty, informative and entertaining MBM founder, artistic director and harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson (below) at 7:15 p.m. NOTE: Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the upcoming holiday concert and play excerpts from past ones TODAY AT NOON on The Midday program aired by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Trevor Stephenson full face at keyboard USE

The program will feature: a cappella (solo vocal) masterworks by Orlando di Lassus and Josquin des Prez performed by a vocal quartet; a Christmas Cantata for soprano and strings by Alessandro Scarlatti—featuring soprano soloist Chelsea Morris (below top); a trio sonata by Johann Joseph Fux; an intriguing  Partita for two scordatura violins (scordatura means the open strings are re-tuned into a new interval configuration!) by Heinrich Biber; the Sonatina in A minor for baroque bassoon and continuo by Georg Philipp Telemann ― with soloist and UW-Madison professor Marc Vallon (below bottom, in a photo by James Gill); one of the Christmas Cantatas, BWV 122Das neugeborne Kindelein (The Newborn Baby) by Johann Sebastian Bach (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and a bonus feature ― a preview of MBM’s upcoming April performance of Bach’s oratorio  St. John Passion, the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn.

CHELSEA Shephard

Marc Vallon 2011 James Gill (baroque & modern)[2]

Advance-sale discount tickets: $28 for general admission, $23 for students and seniors 65 and over. They are available at Orange Tree Imports, Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West) . You can also find online advance-sale tickets at madisonbachmusicians.org 

Tickets at the door are: $30 for general admission; $25  for students and seniors 65 and over.
 Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before lecture (student ID is required)

Musicians will include: Chelsea Morris, soprano; Joseph Schlesinger, counter-tenor; Scott Brunscheen, tenor; Matthew Tintes, bass; Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, baroque violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, baroque viola; Martha Vallon, baroque cello; Marc Vallon, baroque bassoon; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord


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
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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 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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