The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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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.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: This afternoon is the last performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” The critics and public agree: “Don’t miss it!”

May 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) perform Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8, called the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

The big work celebrates a big event: The closing of the 25th anniversary season of music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who discussed the Mahler symphony and played recorded excerpts with radio host Norman Gilliland on last Thursday’s edition of The Midday on Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/symphony-thousand

The critics are unanimous in their praise.

Sure, they voice a few minor quibbles here and there.

But mostly they agree: This is a must-hear performance of an epic and complex 90-minute work by Mahler (below) that is rarely heard live because it requires such massive forces and such accomplished performers. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Klaus Tennstedt, the London Philharmonic and soloists perform the finale to the rapturous “Symphony of a Thousand.”)

Specifically, that means that if you go, you will hear more than 500 performers who include: the symphony orchestra; the concert organ; eight highly acclaimed guest vocal soloists; and three choirs, including the University of Wisconsin Choral Union.

But you can see and judge for yourself.

Here is a link to a posting last week on this blog with more information about the concert, the performers and other tickets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/04/29/classical-music-this-coming-weekend-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-and-other-individuals-and-groups-join-forces-to-close-john-demains-25th-season-with-mahlers-monumental-s/

Here is a link to the review of the opening night that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

https://isthmus.com/music/monumental-closer/

Here is a link to the review that Matt Ambrosio wrote for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/madison-symphony-closes-its-season-with-spectacular-symphony-of-a/article_44b26d91-e0f0-5d67-88b9-10cd5e8c5c6d.html

And here are some reviews on Facebook by ordinary listeners and concertgoers:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/MadisonSymphony/posts/

You can also leave your opinion in the comment section of this blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and 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 early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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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 concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: This Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra will perform a Russian trumpet concert and a new work by an orchestra member along with a famous Schumann symphony

February 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Brian Ruppert) to post:

“For our winter concert, we are excited to welcome trumpeter Jessica Jensen back to the stage on this Wednesday night, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. to perform the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Aleksandra Pakhmutova with the musicians of the Middleton Community Orchestra led by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

“I am beyond thrilled to be playing Aleksandra Pakhmutova’s Trumpet Concerto with the Middleton Community Orchestra,” says Jensen (below).

“After completing her concerto in 1955, Pakhmutova (below) — who is still actively composing and performing today at the age of 89 — cultivated a legendary career as one of Russia’s top film and popular music composers.

“Her future cinematic success was foreshadowed in her trumpet concerto as parts of it sound as though they could have been taken directly out of the score to a 1950s film. Week after week the MCO adds a new electricity to the work. I cannot wait to share this rarely performed fiery, dramatic piece with everyone.”

The program will open with “Polar Nights,” a piece composed by MCO violist Nebojsa Macura (below), who says: “‘Polar Nights’ uses a variety of instrumental colors to conjure up images of winter above the Arctic Circle. I’m tremendously honored to perform my own piece as a member of such a dedicated orchestra.”

The program will conclude with the famous Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the lyrical second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert is at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street.

General admission is $15.  All students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at the door and at Willy St. Coop West.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the concert hall doors open at 7 p.m.

A meet-and-greet reception (below) follows the concert.


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Classical music: This Saturday the critically acclaimed new production of Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” is featured in cinemas in “Live from The Met in HD” satellite broadcasts and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Read a rave review

January 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, Jan. 12, brings the fifth production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series: Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

This 1902 opera – the only well-known one by this Italian composer (1866-1950) — seeks to capture the Baroque era’s richness of Paris and the French court in 1730. It is based on a real-life French actress who captured the public with her on-stage and off-stage passion.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, directed by Sir David McVicar, features superstar soprano Anna Netrebko as Adriana while the acclaimed tenor Piotr Beczala plays Maurizio, who is as smitten with Adriana as she is with him. (You can hear their duet from Act I in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor is the acclaimed and much in-demand Gianandrea Noseda (below), the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a frequent conductor at the Met.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (below) has also received critical acclaim for her powerful singing in the production.

The hi-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 4:15 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in Italian with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this season, which includes operas by Bizet, Wagner, Donizetti, Saint-Saens, Puccini, Verdi and Poulenc plus a new work, “Marnie,” by Nico Muhly: https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a rave review of “Adriana Lecouvreur” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/arts/music/review-adriana-lecouvreur-metropolitan-opera.html

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/adriana_usglobal.pdf?performanceNumber=15136

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” including photos and audiovisual clips: https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/Adriana-Lecouvreur/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Opera_Live_in_HD


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Classical music: WQXR names the best classical recording of 2018. Plus, here are other guides to help you use gift cards

January 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is another gift list that The Ear just found. Even though it was compiled before the holiday, he looked for it but didn’t find it.

It’s another of the top classical recordings of 2018. But this time, the list – with plenty of sound samples — comes from WQXR, the famed classical music radio station in New York City.

It may be too late to use for holiday gift giving – unless it is for yourself. After all, there are a lot of gift cards waiting to be redeemed.

Also below are several other lists so that you can cross-check and compare. The CD of Chopin ballades and nocturnes by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (below), for example, makes almost all the lists, which is a good sign of quality. (You can hear Andsnes play the Ballade No. 4, The Ear’s favorite, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Here is the link to WQXR:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-releases-2018/

Here is a link to the top picks by critics for The New York Times and the Top 10 for National Public Radio (NPR):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/22/classical-music-gift-guide-or-gift-or-both-critics-for-the-new-york-times-name-their-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2018-so-does-national-public-radio-npr/

And here are the nominations for the 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra performs a non-traditional “holiday” concert of Mahler and Kodaly this Wednesday night

December 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the holiday season, many — maybe even most — classical music groups program music that goes with the theme of the holidays from Christmas and Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and the New Year.

But some groups wisely give listeners a respite from holiday fare.

That happened one week ago when the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Beverly Taylor, performed a memorable program that featured the brassy “Te Deum” by Zoltan Kodaly and especially the calming Requiem by Maurice Duruflé.

Something similar will happen again this Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol St.

That is when the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) will perform its “holiday” concert that is holiday-ish more as a matter of timing than of content or theme, since you won’t hear any carols or sing-alongs or the usual or traditional holiday fare. The Ear thinks it’s a smart approach and a welcome break.

The non-holiday “holiday” program includes “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler, sung by UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below).

Also on the program is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” (The Steer on the Roof) by Darius Milhaud with violinist soloist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who is the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Matthew Coley (below top), a member of the acclaimed Madison-based percussion group “Clocks in Motion,” will perform two pieces of Hungarian music that use the rarely heard cimbalom (below bottom): the “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti and the “Hary Janos Suite” by Kodaly. (You can hear Monti’s familiar “Czardas” in a version for violin and piano in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kyle Knox (below), who is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the new associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and who is also the husband of Naha Greenholtz, will once again be the guest conductor.

Admission is $15 for the general public with students and young people getting in for free. Tickets can be bought at the Willy Street Co-op West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

As usual, there will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) – complete with Christmas cookies, you can be sure – at the end of the concert.

For more information about future MCO concerts, reviews of past concerts and details about how to join the orchestra or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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 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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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