The Well-Tempered Ear

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra cancels its first Masterworks concert and launches an online virtual Winter Chamber Series in January

November 22, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With the surge in the coronavirus pandemic, the dominos are starting to fall again — this time for the spring series of live, in-person concerts that had been planned.

Friday night brought important news from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in photo by Mike Gorski).

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) has canceled its first Masterworks concert, with guest cellist Amit Peled, in late January. In its place the WCO is launching its first-ever digital Winter Chamber Series.

The virtual, online series of digital concerts will feature the ensemble’s 34 players in smaller groups of four to eight, That will be safer for both players and audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four home-viewable virtual online concerts are planned: Jan. 22, Feb. 26, March 26, and April 16. Programs are not available except for the first concert.

Also included are a pre-concert talk with WCO music director and maestro Andrew Sewell (below top, in a photo by Alex Cruz) and Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below bottom), and post-concert reflections with musicians of the WCO.

The ticket price for each concert, which will run 60-75 minutes, is $30 per household. A ticket entitles you to one viewing of the concert between Friday, Jan. 22, and Monday, Jan. 25. The concert will start streaming at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Patrons who have already purchased season subscription tickets can apply that to the full series of four concerts.

Tickets are available online at the Overture Center box office. See below.

The program for the first Winter Chamber Concert on Jan. 22 is:

Four Canzonas by the Baroque Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli (below):

“Tzigane” (a term for music by Hungarian gypsies or Romani) for Wind Quintet by the contemporary American composer Valerie Coleman (below):

The first movement of the famed String Quintet in C major, D. 956, by the Austrian Romantic composer Franz Schubert (below):

Four Octets by the 20th-century American composer and jazz musician Alec Wilder (below), which you can sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.

To see more background about the composers, more details about the concert and purchase tickets, go to: https://www.overture.org/events/wco-chamber-series

You can also check out the series as it progressively gets announced on the WCO home website: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/winter-chamber-series

The concert series sounds like a terrific substitution for the regular concerts that cannot yet take place.

But The Ear wonders if the price per concert is a bit steep, given that comparable concerts by UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music , the Wllly Street Chamber Players and Just Bach are free – although they do ask for donations — and that the Madison Opera charged $50 for its entire fall digital series while the Wisconsin Union Theater charges between $10 and $20 per virtual concert.

The Ear likes the eclectic programming, but also thinks it is kind of teasing and unsatisfying to offer just the first movement of such an organic masterpiece and profoundly beautiful work as the Schubert Cello Quintet. Doing one movement of a chamber music work somehow seems very different from doing one movement of a symphony.

It would also be nice to see the programs for all the concerts plus a series discount as an incentive.

What do you think about the WCO’s Winter Chamber Series?

What do you think about the price and the programming?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

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

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

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Season 3 of the free monthly Just Bach concerts begins at noon TODAY virtual and online. Each concert will be available for the following week. Here is the 2020-21 schedule

September 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Just Bach monthly concert series – featuring singers as well as period instruments and historically informed performance practices — to post:

“We are thrilled to share the timeless beauty of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) with music lovers in Madison and beyond for another year.

“Our host venue, Luther Memorial Church at 1021 University Ave., has resumed their weekly ‘Music at Midday’ concert series: https://www.luthermem.org/music-at-midday/

“As part of this series, the one-hour Just Bach concerts will take place at noon on the third Wednesday of each month. Here are the dates for the new 2020-21 season: today Sept. 16; Oct. 21; Nov. 18; Dec. 16; Jan. 20; Feb. 17; March 17; April 21; and May 19.

“Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is still too risky to have an in-person audience. So Music at Midday concerts will be virtual and online, posted on the Luther Memorial website.

“In addition, Just Bach concerts will be posted on the Just Bach website, the Just Bach Facebook page, and the Just Bach YouTube Channel.

“The concert footage should be available online for at least a week following the concert. At least that is the plan.

“Viewing the concerts is FREE, but we ask those who are able, to help us pay our musicians with a tax-deductible donation.

“Today’s concert program opens with the Pastorale in F, BWV 590, performed by organist Mark Brampton Smith (below).

“Violinist Kangwon Kim (below), concertmaster and assistant artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will continue, with the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, with the famous Chaconne, for solo violin, BWV 1004 (see a brief preview in the YouTube video at the bottom).

“Co-founder and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt  (below) will lead the final chorale sing-along, from Cantata 99, Was Gott tut, das isn wohlgetan (What God does, is well done).

“The chorale sheet music (below) will be displayed on the screen, and Mark Brampton Smith will accompany on the organ. Cantata 99 is a timely choice. It was composed for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, which is next Sunday, Sept. 20.

“We need this soul-centering music now more than ever. We invite the music community to join us today and other Wednesdays for a wonderful program of J.S. Bach.”

Sept. 16 program:

  • Pastorale in F, BWV 590
  • Partita in D Minor for solo violin, BWV 1004
  • Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does, is well done)

Performers: Kangwon Kim, violin 1; Mark Brampton Smith, organ

For more information go to: https://justbach.org and Facebook.org/JustBachSeries

 


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Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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
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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: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/


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