The Well-Tempered Ear

The New York Times music critics suggest 10 must-hear online classical concerts during December

November 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow is Dec. 1, 2020.

Lately, at the end of every month the music critics for The New York Times publish a list of 10 virtual and online classical concerts for the following month that they think deserve special attention.

Often – but not always — their choices feature the unusual: new music and world premieres; neglected repertoire; and lesser-known performers that most of us are not likely to hear locally.

The December choices, for example, include an oratorio “Perle Noire” (Black Pearl), by composer Tyshawn Sorey, about the famous African-American, Paris-based expat dancer Josephine Baker – she of the banana skirt (below). But she was more than just  a risqué dancer and entertainer. She fought in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis and was a civil rights champion.

But this list also includes seasonal fare such the holiday tradition by which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs in one night all six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (you can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom); and other holiday celebrations such as a concert by the early music vocal group Tenet (below, in a photo by Nan Melville.)

But those suggestions do not take away from more local efforts and performances. 

The Ear is certain that those same critics would approve of supporting local musicians and music groups during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And there are many local offerings. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, the Madison Bach Musicians and Just Bach all have virtual online concerts scheduled for December.

You can check out their offerings at their websites and here on this blog as the month unfolds.

But if the Times’ choices interest you – and they should — here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/arts/music/classical-music-stream-december.html

Note that the blurbs show Eastern Time but also include how long the performances are posted for and links to the organizations presenting the concerts. 

Happy listening!

And Happy Holidays!

Do you have other online performances – local, regional, national or international — to suggest?

Please leave the necessary information in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Cellist Camille Thomas makes her Madison debut online from Paris for the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night

November 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s fall virtual Concert Series performances will begin this Saturday night, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. CST with a live online performance from Paris by the acclaimed cellist Camille Thomas (below).

The “Midnight in Paris” recital – performed in Paris and streamed — features music by Claude Debussy, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. The performance will be preceded by a live 30-40 minute online Q&A with Thomas and pianist Julien Brocal on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. CST.

Here are the specific works on the program, which will last about 75 minutes with no intermission:

Debussy, “Clair de Lune” (arr. Roelens)

Nadia Boulanger, “Three Pieces” for cello and piano

Ravel, Kaddish

Chopin, Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65; and Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 

Tickets for this online event are $10 for UW-Madison students, $18 for Wisconsin Union members, and $20 for all other patrons.

For more information about the Thomas’ performance – including a video and how to purchase tickets — visit union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/camille-thomas.

Thomas (below), a Franco-Belgian cellist, says she uses her music to bring people together from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Thomas released her second album, called “Voice of Hope,” with the exclusive Deutsche Grammophon this past June. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Thomas play a solo version from the album of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from his opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”)

Thomas plays the Feuermann Stradivarius cello (1730, below) — named for the famous 20th-century cellist Emanuel Feuermann who played it — with a bow by Eugene Sartory, who is regarded as one of the finest bow makers in history. Joining her for this performance will be pianist Julien Brocal.

“Camille Thomas’s extraordinary talent makes her one of the most captivating artists of our time, as evidenced by being the first cellist in several decades to be signed by the major record label Deutsche Grammophon,” says Wisconsin Union Theater director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “Her ‘Midnight in Paris’ program brings us closer to her roots and reflects the beauty and charm of her personality as well as her musicality.”

The Ear has listened to some of Thomas’ performances on YouTube and finds her tone, intonation and phrasing outstanding.

The performance by Camille Thomas is the start of the fall Concert Series events, which includes a concert with pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) on Friday, Dec. 11.

In its 101st year, the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) has served as a cultural center for community members and visitors for more than 75 years. The WUD Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

While usually held in-person and most often in Shannon Hall, the Wisconsin Union Theater team will hold this fall’s theater events in a virtual format for the health and safety of patrons, artists and team members in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The team aims for all of its spaces, including online ones, to be accessible. Those that need accommodations can reach out to the Wisconsin Union Theater team at wisconsinuniontheater@union.wisc.edu

The WUT team says it continues to evaluate what changes may need to occur related to the spring Concert Series events as well as other spring Theater season performances.

The Wisconsin Union Theater has made multiple commitments to take a stand against racial injustice, including being more than allies, being activists; using the arts to create social justice; remembering students are future leaders and must be part of the change; using its voice to influence leadership and being firm in its resolve; and making space, stepping back and learning how to give up undeserved or unnecessary power and privilege.

 


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The New York Times music critics pick 10 online concerts and operas to watch through the month of November

October 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music critics for The New York Times have again listed their picks of virtual and online concerts that will be streamed during the month of November, starting this Sunday, Nov. 1, and running right through Nov. 30. In September, they did the same for the month of October.

The list of 10 highlights includes chamber music, orchestral music and operas as well as lots of new music, world premieres of commissions and even the Cliburn International Piano Competition, now known simply as The Cliburn.

Most of the events are posted and available for quite a while.

Note that all times are Eastern and that on this Sunday, Nov. 1, daylight saving ends.

As the critics point out, the list may be especially helpful and enjoyable now that the weather is turning colder, people are isolating at home during the nationwide spikes in coronavirus cases, and concert halls remain closed to the public.

Well-known institutions such as The Metropolitan Opera (below) and the Los Angeles Opera are featured. (You can sample an earlier Met production of Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” – about the early life of Gandhi — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So are symphony orchestras from Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati. 

And pianist Igor Levit (below top), who this past year released the highly praised, award-winning complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven and who was named Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine, is also featured, as is the outstanding Chicago-based violinist Jennifer Koh (below bottom, in a photo by the Los Angeles Times). 

Here is a link to the story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/arts/music/classical-music-stream.html

What do you think of the choices?

Do you have other concerts or classical music events to add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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New York Times music critics pick 10 MUST-HEAR online virtual classical concerts to stream for October

October 3, 2020
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ALERT: Tonight’s concert by the choral group Roomful of Teeth for the Wisconsin Union Theater at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center has been canceled and postponed indefinitely.

By Jacob Stockinger

Increasingly the coronavirus pandemic seems surging out of control. So it comes as no surprise that also more and more concerts of classical music are taking place virtually and online.

Coronavirus image CDC

There are many ways to choose among local, regional, national and international concerts.

But one good guide was published this last week and featured the choice of must-hear classical concerts by critics for The New York Times.

It is an interesting and varied selection, and includes times, links and brief descriptions.

It features concerts that emphasize Black composers such as Florence Price (below top) and women composers. It covers many genres from a solo piano recital by Jeremy Denk (below bottom) – who is supposed to perform here on Dec. 11 at the Wisconsin Union Theater – to chamber music, vocal music, orchestral concerts and operas.

Florence Price head shot University of Arkansas Libraries

Jeremy Denk playing CR Hiroyuki Ito NYTImes

Curiously, there is quite bit of new music but little early music, either Renaissance or Baroque. Perhaps more will appear around the holiday times, when that music is part of the traditional holiday celebrations.

You will find contemporary composers but also lots of certified, tried-and-true classics and masterworks.

Some are one-day only events but many run from a week through a month.

Here is a link to the story. PLEASE NOTE THAT TIMES ARE ALL EASTERN: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/arts/music/classical-music-stream.html

Please let The Ear know if you like this kind of listing and find it useful.

And please feel free to leave in the comment section other guides or events that the public should know about.


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Classical music: This Friday at noon, technology meets Beethoven when UW-Madison pianist Kangwoo Jin plays a FREE concerto performance

March 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale — tomorrow, March 6 — at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features an unusual concert in which classical music meets high technology.

Kangwoo Jin (below, in a photo by Steve Apps for the Wisconsin State Journal), a gifted and prize-winning pianist from South Korea, will perform the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

But instead of a second piano or a full orchestra, Jin will be accompanied by a newly developed interactive app that adjusts to Jin and allows him to play his solo part flexibly with a real orchestra accompaniment that has been recorded minus the piano part.

Jin is studying for his doctorate with UW Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. He will graduate this May.

Next week Jin — who has won the UW-Madison Concerto and Beethoven Competitions and who teaches at Farley’s House of Pianos, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the UW Continuing Education program– will open and close the UW-River Falls Piano Festival with two performances of the same Beethoven concerto with the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra

Jin suffers from hemophilia and has to be careful about injuring himself from over-practicing and over-playing. He has a fascinating and inspiring personal story to tell. Here is a link to a story about him in the Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/uw-pianist-shares-musical-gift-despite-health-challenge/article_fdba6f0f-9245-5816-a97c-c4f3a6e2d0ed.html

You can follow his Facebook page. And here is a link to Jin’s own website, which has more biographical information and videos: https://www.pianistkangwoojin.com


Jin says that, in addition to the two concerto movements, he will also play several short pieces:  “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy; the “Raindrop” Prelude by Chopin; and two song transcriptions by Franz Liszt — Schubert’s “Litany” and Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication).

The orchestral accompaniment for the Beethoven concerto is performed by MusAcc — an iPad app. It is an app that can customize and manipulate the audio, much like an actual instrument, in real time.  Think of it as an orchestra in a box that you can use anywhere.

Jin explains the reasons for his FUS concert, which starts at NOON (not 12:15 p.m., as it used to be) and goes to about 1 p.m.:

“Playing a concerto is not possible in that venue, so I am using a recorded file for the orchestra part,” Jin says. “My friend Yupeng Gu, who developed this audio controlling device, will conduct and control the pacing of the recording so that the sound synchronizes with my playing. It is quite incredible and will be a very interesting concert.”

“I hope this breaks the barrier of having to have a big venue and other difficulties for performing concertos, and lets local people enjoy a more accessible and diverse repertoire,” he says. “If people like it, I would like to play the whole concerto and maybe more concertos — hopefully, all five Beethoven piano concertos — this way. This is something I have not tried before, so I am excited about it.”

“People have much easier access to solo performances, but not to concertos due to many limitations,” Jin adds. “So I expect them to have a novel experience with this concert.”

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a similar performance, done with the same device, featuring a different pianist playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15.

 


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Classical music: This Saturday, you can hear and see UW-Madison grad Brenda Rae make her Metropolitan Opera debut in Handel’s “Agrippina.” Read a local interview with her. Plus, the Avanti Piano Trio gives a free concert on Saturday afternoon.

February 28, 2020
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ALERT: The Avanti Piano Trio will perform a FREE concert this Saturday, Feb. 29, at 3 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham St. in Madison. The Madison-based trio is pianist Joseph Ross, violinist Wes Luke and cellist Hannah Wolkstein.

The program includes the Piano Trio No. 1 by Claude Debussy, Three Nocturnes by Ernest Bloch and the Tango Trio of Miguel del Aguila.

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Feb. 29, soprano Brenda Rae (below, in a photo by Harrison Parrott) – an Appleton native and a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Music – makes her worldwide debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Rae appears in the role of the temptress Poppea – below left, in a photo by Marty Sohl, with acclaimed soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role on the right — in a new production of “Agrippina” by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Rae sing an excerpt of an Act I aria by Poppea.)

Starting at noon, you can hear it live on Wisconsin Public Radio or see and hear it in “Live in HD From the Met” (below is the poster) in the Point Cinema (608 833-3980) on Madison’s far west side and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

The live broadcast will be seen in 2,200 theaters in 70 countries worldwide. Encore performances on Wednesday are at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Point Cinema only.

Admission is $24 with $22 for seniors and $18 for children 3 to 11. Encore tickets are $18 for everyone. The tickets no longer include sales tax.

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

The running time is 3 hours and 35 minutes with one 25-minute intermission.

Here is a link to the Met’s website about the production with photos of cast members and some videos of the the opera: https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/2019-20-season/agrippina-live-in-hd/

Here is a link to a list of cast members and production staff: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/agrippina_feb20_global.pdf

Here is a synopsis of the plot that takes place in ancient Rome and involves the Emperor Nero (Nerone): https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/agrippina/

Finally, here is an email Q&A with Brenda Rae done by Norman Gilliland (below), host of The Midday program on Wisconsin Public Radio: https://www.wpr.org/shows/soprano-brenda-rae-appleton-native-and-uw-alumna-performing-metropolitan-opera

 


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
7 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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