The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all-20th century program of works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Poulenc this coming Saturday night. Plus, conductor Beverly Taylor talks about how severe budget cuts are hurting the choral program at the UW-Madison.

December 8, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union, a campus and community chorus, and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform an all 20th-century program. (Both are below.)

UW Choral Union and UW Symphony 11-2013

Featured are the “Symphony of Psalms” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the “Gloria” by French composer Francis Poulenc; and the Overture to “The Wasps” by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Tickets are $15, $8 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to more information, including how to buy tickets:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union1/

Beverly Taylor, who heads up the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is assistant music director at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct.

Taylor agreed to a recent email interview with The Ear:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

This year, you are giving only one performance, both now and in the spring for “The Creation” by Franz Joseph Haydn. For many years, you have generally given two performances. Why the change? Is it an experiment or trial, or is it permanent?

Three things combined:  Really, the main reason was that the hall and players were only available one night.  As more groups emerge and the hall is booked, and string players may be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra or several new chamber groups, it’s hard to get everyone together on the same night.

Also, we thought we’d pack them in for one night, although with all that goes on in town, we may leave some people out.

Third, because we did not have a full chamber ensemble yet available at the time we planned “The Creation,” and knowing I’d have to hire some additional players, we planned on one night for budget reasons.

Next year?  Who knows?  Check back in February …

UW Choral singers

It is a great program of very different 20th-century works. What was your idea or reason for linking them by putting them on the same program?

Great question, and yes I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

Before I answer that, I should say that I’ve added a bonus piece to the program in the form of the orchestra-only Overture to “The Wasps” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Because the program is a bit on the short side, I had an overture in mind, but hadn’t confirmed it till I saw how quickly the orchestra took on the challenges of the Poulenc and Stravinsky.

One of the great things about programming 20th century music — and I expect will be the same as we add more 21st century music — is the astounding variety of styles available to us. And many of the 20th-century composers lived long enough to provide differing styles within their own work.

UW Symphony violins 2015

UW Symphony Strings cellos

What can you tell us about the work by Stravinsky (below)?

Stravinsky’s earliest works were late Romantic, then, with pulsing rhythms, sometimes called primitive; later there was neo-Classicism, and 12-tone, etc.  If forced to choose a title, I would call “Symphony of Psalms” a mixture of the primitive and the Romantic.

What makes it Romantic is the writing for the choir, which entails long lines, some stunning dynamic changes from loud to soft, and a pure, almost disembodied gentle melody at the end.

What makes it Primitive is the pulsing rhythms in the orchestra in movement III and the unexpected chord interpolations in the first.

What makes it clever intellectually is the difficult, jagged but fascinating double fugue in the second movement; and what makes it a wonderful sonic treat is the elimination of Violin I, II and Viola in favor of FIVE flutes, FIVE oboes, FOUR bassoons, FOUR horns, FIVE trumpets, THREE trombones TWO pianos, ONE harp and ONE tuba, some cellos, double basses and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you get four flutes and a piccolo, playing sometimes a half-step apart, you set up weird shimmering overtones.  It’s fascinating to hear, although I may be deaf after the concert from being so close to them.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

What about the work by Poulenc (below top)?

I wanted to contrast the modern instrumentation of the pulsing rhythms of Stravinsky with an equally interesting 20th-century work with a different flavor.

What makes Poulenc’s “Gloria” (heard in a YouTube video at the bottom) hard to sing is what we hear all the time in popular music — the major seventh chord — think C, E, G and B natural.  For performers, singing C’s against B’s can be hard to tune, but the chords are closely allied with jazz and the piano bar!  And the piano was Poulenc’s composing instrument.

With long lines in the strings, we are treated to the lushest of lines in the third, fifth and sixth movements. The first movement is regally strong; the second and fourth are playful.

Our wonderful soprano soloist, Tyana O’Connor, sings gorgeously in three of the movements, both powerfully direct, and then in soft floating sounds.

Francis Poulenc

And the work by Vaughan Williams?

I chose the Vaughan Williams for its length, its instrumentation (lots for the upper strings, which weren’t playing in the Stravinsky, and nice parts for the harps that we have already playing in the Poulenc and Stravinsky) and its buoyant, positive nature as an opening to our concert.

Vaughan Williams (below) wrote it while he was fairly young, as occasional music to a production of Aristophanes’ play “The Wasps.” He makes a nod to “The Wasps” in the form of a string buzz in the opening and toward the end. But for the most part the overture is formed of two tunes — a perky, angular march and a warm, lush tune aligned with English folksong.  These tunes are presented separately and then combined.

By choosing three different flavors of 20th-century music, I hope to present a balanced evening with appeal to everyone.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

Have steep budget cuts to the UW-Madison hurt the Choral Union? Do such cuts affect your ability to hire guest soloists? Do they account for the reduction in performances? Do they alter the repertoire that you can do?

Yes, they have hurt the Choral Union in certain ways, although I don’t think our excellence will be any the less.

Without the availability of some discretionary concert funds, we have had to increase some fees for members, and we have had to postpone some special works that might include high rentals of materials or special instruments or another venue to perform in.

We sometimes program using the great soloists available to us from our faculty and graduate students, and save funds for when we need to hire a professional voice that we don’t have. With more money we might do that more often, but we are lucky to have gifted people within our reach.

Good classical music has costs that the public often doesn’t know about — high costs for copyrighted parts and scores (below) for recent works, and specialty instruments such as viols or oboes d’amore and portative organs for early music.

Beethoven Symphony 5 score

What else would you like to say?

I’m so glad you asked me to write.  Although this concert by the Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra is a ticketed event, the great majority of our concerts are FREE.

We encourage listeners of all types and generations to TRY to listen to something new and LIVE, and perhaps in a different genre than they’ve ever tried before.

 


Classical music: A video of UW-Madison violinist Eleanor Bartsch serenading two elephants at Circus World in Baraboo with Bach goes viral — and makes a National Public Radio blog.

September 9, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This isn’t the first time that one or both of the extremely talented violinist Bartsch sisters — Alice (below top) and Eleanor (below bottom), who come from the Twin Cities — have made news and generated headlines during their time as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, or even in the time following graduation.

Alice Bartsch

Eleanor Bartsch

But it may well be the first time that the event and headline went national, or even international.

Here’s the situation: Eleanor Bartsch played two gigs of the famous and beautiful Concerto for Two Violins by Johann Sebastian Bach with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top). (This  spring her sister Alice left her position as concertmaster of the Middleton Community Orchestra.) One concert, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, went well and without incident.

Then, she and her concerto partner, violinist Tim Kamps (below bottom) — who also studied at the UW-Madison and who is a member of the Kipperton String Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra as well as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — moved on to Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

Tim Kamps playing

Just as an aside, Bartsch decided to use some of her warming up time, her practicing and rehearsing, to go serenade two of the elephants at the world-famous headquarters of Circus World with her part of the Bach concerto. The elephants started swaying in time and it was all captured on video and then posted on YouTube.

Eleanor Bartsch and elephant closeup

The Ear was put onto the elephant-violin encounter and its video – which runs under one minute and has been called “adorable” and “cute” by some viewers  — by a close friend and loyal reader of this blog.

But then the word spread like – well, like an elephant stampede. The video has gone viral with almost 2 million hits since August 24.

And of course someone who knows animals pointed out that the way the elephants were swaying was NOT really their way of dancing happily to the Bach rhythms and tune. It was instead a pitiful sign of what happens to animals in captivity when the are subject to obsessive compulsive behavior. Or perhaps what happens when they are in Musk (like heat or rut) and ready to reproduce. Or when they are ready to attack.

Some viewers even said it amounted to distress or animal abuse.

Here are the original videos:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/08/29/a-woman-plays-bach-on-the-violin-to-swaying-elephants-is-this-cute-or-cruel/

And then: VOILA

The outstanding blog Deceptive Cadence, put together by NPR or National Public Radio, linked that video to four other memorable and unusual music videos -– and included the objections from animal-lovers.

By the way, the other four videos are also well worth a look and a listen.

Here is a link to the more comprehensive NPR story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/09/05/345593233/five-new-classical-videos-you-need-to-see-to-believe

You can decide for yourself.

But somehow The Ear can empathize with those who do not like to see caged animals since I am among them. But I surely do not consider hearing violin by Bach as insult added to injury.

Make up your own mind – and let us know: WHAT DO YOU THINK? Thumbs up or down?

The Ear wants to hear.

And for the record and your listening pleasure, as they say on radio, here is a link to a great performance – WITHOUT elephants — of the same Bach Double Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman:

 

 


Classical music: University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Kipperton String Quartet will open the Rural Musicians Forum’s summer season on Monday night, June 9, in Spring Green at Unity Chapel with a FREE concert of Borodin, Britten and Shostakovich.

June 4, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

If you think you have to live in a big city to hear fine classical music, think again.

Blog friend Kent Mayfield, who lives in Milwaukee but works with rural musicians, writes:

“Known for its high energy and musical depth, the Kipperton String Quartet (below) will open the 2014 summer concert season for the Rural Musicians Forum with a FREE concert in Spring Green on Monday, June 9.

Kipperton String Quartet playing

“The Kipperton String Quartet performs at 7:30 p.m., at Unity Chapel. The Chapel (below top is the exterior and below bottom is the interior)  is located on County Road T, just east of Hwy 23. The chapel is a living testament to the simple and contemplative lives early settlers created for themselves in southwest Wisconsin. While famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright did not design the building, he did help in its planning and it seems to reflect at least some of his early designs and influence.

“There is no ticket charge but a freewill offering to support the concert series will be taken. For more information: www.ruralmusiciansforum.org OR contact Kent Mayfield ruralmusiciansforum@yahoo.com

Unity Chapel in Spring Green exterior

Unity Chapel in Spring Green interior

“The Kipperton String Quartet includes (from left) violinists Timothy Kamps and Wes Luke; violist Paul Alan Price-Brenner; and cellist Kevin Price-Brenner.

Kipperton String Quartet 1

“Music for a Summer Evening” for June 9 will feature three string quartets from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The most familiar of these is surely the String Quartet No. 2 in D Major by Russian composer Alexander Borodin (below), who was also a professional chemist. The quartet was well-received during Borodin’s life but managed to “cross-over” into the mega-popular realm when at least two of its themes (heard at bottom in a popular YouTube video) were used as part of the 1953 musical “Kismet.” Robert Wright and George Forrest used several of Borodin’s compositions to accompany a story set in the times of the Arabian Nights. Two songs in particular, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “This is My Beloved” are based directly on lyrical and exotic themes from the second and third movements of Borodin’s quartet.

Alexander Borodin

“The Kipperton String Quartet will also perform Three Divertimenti for String Quartet by Benjamin Britten (below). Britten is one of the great 20th-century composers and certainly among the greatest British composers of all time. The Three Divertimenti are a set of three individual character pieces meant as “pleasing entertainment.” The bristling rhythms, and colorful sounds are broadly appealing. Britten was a composer of great skill and imagination who wrote for the wider public.

Benjamin Britten

“The third work on the Kipperton program for RMF’s “Music for a Summer Evening,” is the String Quartet No. 1 in C major for Strings, Op. 49, by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (below). It is a short piece, in four movements of compact, classical form: a slow opener, then variations on a folk-style melody, followed by a rushing scherzo and an exuberant, dancing finale – a progression from unease to exhilaration taking not much more than a quarter of an hour. The atmosphere is, he said, spring-like. Some of the music came from one of his film scores, for “The Girl Friends,” about three girlhood friends growing up before World War I who eventually become nurses.”

dmitri shostakovich

The quartet first met in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and quickly coalesced into the premier string quartet of the tri-state area. In addition to the DSO, the members also play in other orchestras such as the LaCrosse Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.

The quartet was the very first String Quartet in Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

According to RMF Artistic Director, Kent Mayfield, “The Kipperton String Quartet creates a shimmering sound full of energy and virtuosic skill that pleases both the casual listener and more serious students of the classics. This is a perfect way to welcome summer to the Wisconsin River Valley.”

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