The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann

September 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.

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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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Classical music: The new period-instrument group Sonata à Quattro makes its debut and excels in early Baroque music

July 13, 2018
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ALERT: The All-Festival Concert that closes this summer’s 19th annual Madison Early Musical Festival will take place in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for the general public, $10 for seniors and students. Here are two links where you can find more specific information, including composers and works on the program:

https://memf.wisc.edu/event/all-fest-2018/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-2/

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.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) is becoming another powerhouse in our musical scene. Already a spark plug of the Ancora String Quartet, and now the director of the annual “Bach Around the Clock” bashes, she has organized a new ensemble, Sonata à Quattro, which made its debut on Wednesday night at Pres House.

This was done under the aegis of the current Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) as a “fringe concert” — in the manner long-established by the Boston Early Music Festival. Plus, the concert’s theme was “The Lübeck Connection,” clearly tying it to the MEMF.

The music was early Baroque, almost entirely from the 17th century.

The first half presented pieces by seven composers, including, among the better-known ones, Michael Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz, Heinrich Ignaz Biber and Antonio Vivaldi.

In the earlier pieces, the instruments were not originally specified at all — and one of them was in fact purely vocal. But the later ones clearly displayed the definition of the early string ensemble.

Indeed, the basic players — besides the backup harpsichord — were seated (below) in what is now familiar in the configuration of the latter-day string quartet, with the subtle suggestion that the earlier sonata à quattro genre was its natural predecessor.

The presence here of Vivaldi—besides Gabrieli, the only Italian among these Germans, and of later date—seemed a bit incongruous, but his familiar Sinfonia ‘al Santo Sepolcro’ actually illustrated well the mature à quattro texture. (You can hear the Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And a most impressive conclusion for this first half of the program was the fascinating eight-part Sonata in A minor by the sadly neglected Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665)—its eight-voice scoring not serving as a double choir but as a richly textured study in contrasting high with low parts.

For this first half, the core performers were Nathan Giglierano and Christine Hauptly Annin, violins; Fischer-Hoyt, viola; and Charlie Rasmussen, cello, with harpsichordist Daniel Sullivan.

They were joined along the way by gambist Phillip Serna (below top) who performed later on violone; and, for the Capricornus also violinist Thalia Coombs (below second), violist Micah Behr (below third) and viola da gambist Eric Miller (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The program’s second half was devoted entirely to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (below, ca. 1637-1707), the big star of the MEMF constellation.

First we had a Trio in B-flat from his Op. 2 collection, then a slightly French-style solo harpsichord Suite in D minor from Daniel Sullivan (below top).

Finally, we had two solo cantatas, sung by Kristin Knutson (below bottom), whose lovely soprano voice blended beautifully with the instruments.

This new ensemble will continue with concerts scheduled ahead for the coming season. But certainly this appearance represents a beautiful, and perfectly timed, introduction in a concert of true delight.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: The first-rate and listener-friendly Willy Street Chamber Players announce their five impressive July concerts – three with admission and two for FREE — as both subscription and single tickets go on sale

June 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) remains one of The Ear’s favorite chamber music ensembles, which his why he named it “Musicians of the Year” in 2016.

Here is a link to that posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-willy-street-chamber-players-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2016/

Nothing has changed, although some programs hold more appeal than others, as you would expect for anyone.

What’s not to like about the Willys?

The Willys emphasize friendliness and informality, putting a premium on accessible communication with the audience. You never get that snobby or exclusive feeling that some classical music concerts exude.

The price is right — $15 for each concert, $40 for the series of three — plus a FREE community concerts at the Goodman Center (below) and another FREE community concert at the Union Terrace.

The playing is always first-rate by both group members and guest artists. Many of both groups are local and come from the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music or play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Middleton Community Orchestra and other groups.

The programming is always inventive and eclectic. The music the Willys play includes both old and new works, familiar and unfamiliar composers, classic and contemporary music.

The Friday night concerts start at 6 p.m. and  last 60 to 90 minutes, giving you plenty of time to do something else to kick off the weekend. (See the YouTube video by Paul Baker at there bottom.) 

True to their name, at the post-concert receptions the Willys serve snacks that promote businesses on the east side. And trust The Ear, the food is very good. 

Here is a link to the new season, the group’s third:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

And here is a link to the Willys’ outstanding, informative and well organized website where you can find much more, including the full programs; the names of the core players; how to order tickets; how to donate and support The Willys; the names and location of the food providers; the rave reviews by several critics; favorite east side restaurants; frequently asked questions; and more (don’t ignore the heading FAQ on the home page).

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

You can order season tickets and, if you go to the home page and look at each concert under Summer Series, individual tickets. You can also click on the box “Tickets Available.”

It all starts Friday, July 6, at 6 p.m. in the usually well attended Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street.

The Ear can hardly wait.


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


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