The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players mix classical and contemporary string quartets and again show off their exceptional artistry and adventurousness

January 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photo.


By John W. Barker

A Place to Be, at 911 Williamson Street, is a former store converted into a kind of near East Side clubhouse. Amid the chaos and entanglements of this weekend, it has been, indeed, the place to be for lovers of chamber music.

Just as last year, the Willy Street Chamber Players gave a concert in this intimate “chamber” on last Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The string quartet fielded from the larger group consisted of violinists Paran Amirinazari and Eleanor Bartsch (who alternated recurrently in the first and second chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges.


Their program mixed music of two traditional classical composers with that of two contemporaries.

Opening the program was the String Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772), by Franz Joseph Haydn, which was played with delightful elegance and spirit.

Later came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Four Pieces for String Quartet,” dating from 1843 to 1847 and published as a set designated Op. 81. These called for a richer playing style, which the Willys managed easily, and with strong feeling for the extensive fugal writing in two of the movements.

For more recent material, the group offered a tango tidbit by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and a recent work (2005) by Hawaiian-American, Harlem-based, crossover composer, string player and band leader Daniel Bernard Roumain.

The piece by Piazzolla (below), Four for Tango (1988, presumably scored for him by somebody else), is a kind of anti-quartet venture, requiring defiant employment of unconventional string sounds.

astor piazzolla

Even more unconventional is the three-movement String Quartet No. 5 (2005) by Roumain (below). Given the subtitle of “Rosa Parks,” it pays tribute to the heroic African-American civil rights leader who sparked the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Roumain is a classically trained musician who draws upon a range of Black music styles in his compositions. He too asks the players to break norms by using hand-clapping and foot-stomping as well as exaggerated bowings.

His musical ideas are interesting but few, and developed only in constant, almost minimalist, repetition. I was impressed, however, by his command of quartet texture, and by how the instruments really could work both together and in oppositions, especially in the long first movement. (You can hear the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is performed by the Lark Quartet, for which it was composed.)


The four Willys dug into this novel repertoire with zest and careful control. In the entire program, indeed, they displayed an utter joy in making music together. Their artistry and their exploratory adventurism mark the group, more than ever, as Madison cultural treasures, richly deserving of their designation by The Ear as “Musicians of the Year for 2016.”

They will be giving FREE and PUBLIC performances at: Edgewood High School’s Fine Arts Fest (Feb. 14); the Northside Community Connect Series at the Warner Park Community Center (Feb. 19); the Marquette Waterfront Fest (June 11); and at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green (June 12). And we await impatiently their announcement of plans for their third series of Friday concerts this July.

For more information about concerts and about the group, go to:

Then click on concerts or events.

Music education news: The third annual Madison Boychoir Festival – with a FREE public concert – takes place this Saturday at Edgewood High School and Edgewood College. Plus, Madison Youth Choirs names Boris Frank as its new Executive Director.

January 12, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

More than by taking piano or string lessons, chances are that most children and young people are first exposed to the joy of making music, and of classical music, through singing. The human voice, after all, is the original instrument.

So it strikes The Ear as worthwhile for the public to know about a major event in music education that will take place this weekend in Madison. Kids today just don’t get enough good press about their achievements — unless maybe it is in sports.

The Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) and the Edgewood College Music Department will present their third annual Madison Boychoir Festival on Saturday, January 14.

The event is a day-long celebration of high-quality choral music for young singers. The gathering will culminate in a FREE AND PUBLIC festival concert (below, a photo of the 2011 concert) at 4:30 p.m., with over 300 boys in grades 2-12, at Edgewood High School‘s Wilke Gymnasium, 2219 Monroe St., on Madison near west side.

Here are a comment and a press release from Michael Ross, artistic director of Madison Youth Choirs, with more details:

“The Madison Youth Choirs and Edgewood College are excited to be helping create a strong culture of singing and music education, especially during this time of increasing budget cuts to school music programs. With the support of the incredibly dedicated music teachers from throughout the area we are working to build not only future musicians, but more importantly future music enthusiasts and audience members.”

Adds Ross:

“This is an amazing gathering of hundreds of young singers. “The festival welcomes singers from throughout Dane County and Southern Wisconsin. (Registration for this year is already closed.)

Singers are placed into one of three festival choirs, based on their age:

Choir 1: 2nd-5th graders, hosted by MYC’s Purcell Choir, conducted by Margaret Jenks.

“Choir 2: 6th-8th graders, hosted by MYC’s Britten and Holst Choirs, conducted by Randal Swiggum (below).

“Choir 3: 9th-12th graders, hosted by MYC’s Ragazzi Choir, conducted by Dr. Albert Pinsonneault and Michael Ross.

“Conductors (a workshop from 2011’s festival is below) will work with singers on vocal technique, teach music for the festival’s afternoon concert (no advance preparation for the festival is necessary for the participants), encourage singers to meet new people, and most importantly generate enthusiasm about choral music and excitement about the uniqueness of singing in a choir.

“Rehearsals will take place in classrooms throughout the Edgewood College campus and will be open for observation by music educators, voice teachers, parents and chaperones in attendance. The young singers have not prepared works in advance, so the complete program is not known yet.

The combined festival choirs (300+ boys, grades 2-12) will perform: “Shosholoza,” a traditional South African song, arranged by Albert Pinsonneault, and “Plato’s Take” by Randal Swiggum.

“Plato’s Take,” was written for the first Madison Boychoir Festival. Its text comes from Plato (it is sung in Ancient Greek) and the translation is “Of all the wild animals, the boy is the hardest to handle.”

Also, the high school men’s choir will likely perform the oldest known round (that we have written evidence of), “Sumer is icumen in,” from the 13th century.

“The Madison Boychoir Festival is generously supported by Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional support from Edgewood College.

“About Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Madison Youth Choirs strives to create a community of young musicians dedicate to musical excellence through which we inspire enjoyment, enhance education, and nurture personal, musical, and social development, by the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature.

“To this end, we focus on the process and provide singers a rich rehearsal experience where thoughtful discussion and activities lead to larger connections and a music education that becomes a springboard for understanding the world.”

The Ear thinks this is a big leap, but a very laudable goal.

In related news, the Madison Youths Choirs has named Boris Frank (below) as its new executive director.

Says Michael Ross, the group’s artistic director: “We’re also excited about having Boris join us. I really feel we’re sort of a secret in Madison — although we have doubled in size over the last 10 years and will serve over 450 kids this year.

“I look forward to working with Boris to not only increase our public profile, but also diversify funding sources–all in service to being a part of building a strong music education for kids in the Madison area.”

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