The Well-Tempered Ear

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

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By performing, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so was the unusual honor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: Saturday at noon, Bizet’s “Carmen” airs in cinemas during “Live from The Met in HD” and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Saturday night, the Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert of Haydn, Schumann and Shostakovich

February 1, 2019
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ALERT: This Saturday night, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert. The program offers the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, “The Frog” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major by Dmitri Shostakovich; and the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, by Robert Schumann. For more about the unusual history of the critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-2/

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Feb. 2, the seventh production of this season’s “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” series is Georges Bizet’s lusty, sultry  and violent “Carmen,” one of the most popular operas ever composed.

Its successful world premiere was in Paris in 1875, which Bizet did not live to see. But Bizet’s masterpiece of the gypsy seductress who lives by her own rules has had an impact far beyond the opera house.

The opera’s beautiful melodies are as irresistible as the title character herself, a force of nature who has become a defining female cultural figure. (You can hear one of Carmen’s signature arias– “Love Is a Wild Bird” — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Carmen” was a scandal at its premiere but soon after became a triumphal success and has remained one of the most frequently staged operas in the world.

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine reprises her acclaimed portrayal of opera’s ultimate temptress, a triumph in her 2017 debut performances.

Opposite her is the impassioned tenor Roberto Alagna (below right, in a photo by Karen Almond for The Met) as her lover, Don José.

French native Louis Langrée (below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor), who heads the Mostly Mozart Festival and is the artistic director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, will conduct Sir Richard Eyre’s production, a Met favorite since its 2009 premiere.

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 3:45 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

There will be encore HD showings next Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (“Carmen” is so popular that some cities will also host a second encore showing on Saturday, Feb. 9.)

The opera will be sung in French 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 Theaters 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 Met productions this season:

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list:

https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/carmen_global.pdf?performanceNumber=15202

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Carmen,” including photos and audiovisual clips:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/carmen/

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: A FREE recital by the Del Sol string quartet on Monday night honors pioneering composer Ben Johnston

May 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been asked to post the following announcement:

The San Francisco-based ensemble the Del Sol Quartet will give a FREE public recital on Monday night, May 21, in Madison in honor of pioneer composer, teacher and mentor Ben Johnston (below).

For more information about the composer, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Johnston_(composer)

The recital is on the occasion of Johnston’s upcoming induction into the American Academy of Arts and Lettershttps://artsandletters.org/pressrelease/2018-newly-elected-members/

This FREE performance will be held in the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Monday night at 7 p.m.

The program will feature Johnston’s two most popular string quartets: the Fourth Quartet (based on the beloved theme “Amazing Grace”); and the Tenth Quartet (also based on a popular folk melody). In addition there will be works by some of Johnston’s contemporaries. (You can hear the Fourth Quartet of Ben Johnston in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Johnston, 92, has made his home in the Madison area for the past 11 years, where he continues to advance the field of microtonal music composition and performance, most notably initiated in the U.S. by music legend Harry Partch, with whom Johnston studied for several years. Partch’s seminal work, “Genesis of Music,” was first published in Madison by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1949.

Winner of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Johnston spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He had a significant role in some of the Contemporary Arts Festivals, which were annual events in the 1960s. His service, as composition teacher and mentor there, led to an honorary doctorate from that institution. He is also the author of “Maximum Clarity,” published by the University of Illinois Press.

Hailed by New York Times critic Mark Swed as “probably [America‘s] most subversive composer …able to make both radical thinking and avant-garde techniques sound invariably gracious,”Johnston’s diligent dedication recently resulted in the release of the third CD by the Milwaukee-based Kepler Quartet https://www.keplerquartet.com/ on the New World Music label https://www.newworldmusic.com/

The three CD series encompasses all of Johnston’s string quartets and took 14 years of painstaking collaboration to bring to fruition, receiving high acclaim internationally. Johnston has been well-known in experimental music circles since his second quartet came out on Nonesuch Records in 1969.

Hailed by Gramophone as “masters of all musical things they survey” and two-time winner of the top Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the Del Sol String Quartet shares living music with an ever-growing community of adventurous listeners.

Del Sol (below) was founded in 1992 at Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and is recognized as a “vigorous champion of living composers,” focusing on music that reflects the cultural diversity of the community, advocating works by both world-renowned and emerging composers, and collaborating across disciplines. Del Sol has commissioned and premiered over 100 works by a diverse range of composers.

The Quartet has performed on prominent concert series nationwide, including the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, Symphony Space, Cabrillo Festival, Other Minds Festival, and Santa Fe Opera.

The quartet conducts an active educational program in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to regular residencies at universities and music schools across the country.”

For more information, go to: http://delsolquartet.com/


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

October 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

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

There will be three performances:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, got o these websites:

https://www.soundoutloudensemble.com

https://publicphilosophysite.wordpress.com

About the Organizations:

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

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


Classical music: New Orleans seeks to once again become an American opera capital with an emphasis on diversity

May 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

When you think of opera in America, chances are good that you think of New York City with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Houston Grand Opera; the Santa Fe Opera; and countless other opera companies in many major cities.

And when you think of New Orleans, you understandably think of jazz.

But the truth is that for a long time, New Orleans was an American capital for opera, more important than many of the other cities mentioned above.

Consider the fact that the first opera performed in the United States was performed in New Orleans in 1796. And that at one point, New Orleans was home to five opera companies.

Plus, the opera that was performed there in the past brought racial, cultural and gender diversity to an art form that often lacked it and was largely Euro-centric. (You can hear the company sing “We’re Goin’ Around” from ragtime great Scott Joplin‘s opera “Treemonisha” in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Now some singers and others (below) have formed an organization – OperaCreole — with the aim of correcting racism and restoring New Orleans’ reputation for opera,  especially that of the many African-American and Creole opera composers who were native to New Orleans.

A fine story, with an illuminating interview, recently appeared on NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/28/530085480/a-new-orleans-company-shines-a-light-on-operas-diverse-history

Another excellent story, with more focus on repertoire and history, appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-small-step-toward-correcting-the-overwhelming-whiteness-of-opera

And here is a link to OperaCreole’s own website with more information about the company and its productions:

http://www.operacreole.com


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