The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra finishes its season with first-time performances of a piano concerto by Mozart and a Slavic Mass by Janacek

May 3, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) concludes its current season with “Mass Appeal,” a program that includes two first-ever performances.

One work is the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 382, with Christopher O’Riley as the soloist. The other work is the massive “Glagolitic Mass” by the Czech composer Leos Janacek.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 5, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 6, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $18-$90. Ticket information is lower down.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) had the following comments about the program:

“The concert opens with the exhilarating Overture to the opera Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,

“Janacek’s monumental Glagolitic Mass is a very dramatic work. The soloists who are joining us will fill Overture Hall with voluptuous sound, and the Madison Symphony Chorus will bring its high level of professionalism, adding to the thrilling auditory experience that is so characteristic of Janacek. (NOTE: You can hear the dramatic and brassy opening of the Glagolitic Mass in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“This work also features the organ in a movement all its own, and will give our audiences a chance to once again experience the beauty and power of the Overture Concert Organ as played by MSO’s Principal Organist Greg Zelek (below).”

“Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was completed in 1787. Mozart’s musical genius is evident in the subtle shadings of darkness he injects into even the most outwardly cheerful moments of the overture — which was most recently performed by the MSO in 2003.

“Composed in December of 1785, Piano Concerto No. 22 was the first concerto by Mozart (below) to include clarinets, his favorite woodwind, in its scoring. The concerto is considered to be a particularly elegant work, filled with ornate, often complicated, writing for the soloist that carries a natural sense of aristocratic poise.

“The Glagolitic Mass, considered to be one of the century’s masterworks and Janacek’s finest choral work, has often been viewed as a celebration of Slavic culture. With text in Old Church Slavonic, the five movements correspond to the Roman Catholic Ordinary of the Mass, omitting “Dona nobis pacem” in the Agnus Dei.

“The piece begins and closes with triumphant fanfares dominated by the brass and prominently features the organ throughout.

“Janacek (below) wanted it to be a Mass “without the gloom of the medieval monastic cells in the themes, without the same lines of imitation, without the tangled fugues of Bach, without the pathos of Beethoven, without the playfulness of Haydn,” rather he talks of the inspiration of nature and language.

“Acclaimed for his engaging and deeply committed performances, pianist Christopher O’Riley (below, in a photo by Dan Williams) is known to millions as the host of NPR’s From the Top, which spotlights gifted young classical musicians.

“O’Riley’s repertoire spans a kaleidoscopic array of music from pre-baroque to present-day. He performs around the world and has garnered widespread praise for his untiring efforts to reach new audiences.

Christopher O’Riley has performed as a soloist with virtually all of the major American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, National Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony. He last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1995, making for a highly anticipated return with his performance this season.

Soprano Rebecca Wilson (below, in a photo by Jeremy Lawson) has been praised as a “staggeringly talented singer” by St. Louis Magazine. She has appeared with Union Avenue Opera, in the role of Gutrune in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) and has performed throughout the Chicago area in many roles.

Hailed as possessing a voice of “spell-binding power and intensity” (The Register-Guard), mezzo-soprano Julie Miller (below, in a photo by Devon Cass) has appeared as a soloist with many orchestras and in many major concert halls across the country.

Tenor Rodrick Dixon (below, in a photo by Dan Demetriad) is a classical crossover artist who possesses a voice of extraordinary range and versatility. His body of work covers 25 years of television, recordings, live theater and concerts, including PBS Specials with tenors Victor Cook, and Thomas Young; “Hallelujah Broadway,” starring his wife, Alfreda Burke; the Miss World Pageant broadcast from China and Washington, D.C., on the “E” channel in 126 countries.

Dixon recently appeared in the annual Freedom Awards. His eclectic discography includes recordings for Sony BMG, EMI Records and Naxos.

Bass Benjamin Sieverding (below, in a photo by Lu Zang) has been recognized by critics nationwide for his “surprising depth” (Boulder Daily Camera), as well as his “natural gift for comedy” and “full, rich sound” (Ann Arbor Observer).

As an active soloist and recitalist, Sieverding performs both regionally and internationally. Sieverding is a three-time district winner and regional finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928, and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The chorus (below) is directed by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor and is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent.

One hour before each performance, Beverly Taylor (below), Director of Choral Activities and Professor at the UW-Madison,will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and retiring UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/8.May18.html

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets for the 2017–2018 season finale May concerts are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the May concerts is provided by Mirror 34 Productions, Fiore Companies, Inc., the Steinhauer Charitable Trust, Diane Ballweg, and WPS Health Solutions. Additional funding provided by Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Forte Research Systems and Nimblify, William Wilcox and Julie Porto, and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Posted in Classical music
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