The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: How did a reformation in religion and a revolution in printing change music? The 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) offers answers and samples this week. Part 2 of 2

July 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 2 of 2. And, if you missed the beginning, here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-1/

How does early north German music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France, Germany and England. What is the historical origin and aesthetic importance of the music from that era in that part of the world?

One of the biggest changes during the Reformation in Germany began with sacred music and the far-reaching changes in the way it served the church. The music of mass, motet, psalm and hymn heard in the great urban cathedrals, cloistered chapels and royal palace churches of Catholicism represented the “otherness” of the divine, a God unreachable by the untutored masses.

Written in an intellectual language which required years of rigorous training to learn and understand, it was only the disciplined, practiced choir boys and men who could perform this sacred polyphony in all its wonder and glory.

Luther sought to traverse this divide. Though he held the existing music of sacred polyphony in high esteem, he felt that music could be used to even greater effect in furthering the education and religious commitment of the people.

Luther (below) chose the hymn form as the principle means to his musical aims. A prolific hymnodist himself, he authored hymns such as the famous “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God“) several settings of which begin the All-Festival concert, attempted to connect existing high art with folk music in a style that would appeal to all classes, clergy and laity, men, women and children. His texts were in the German vernacular in order to convey messages that would be understood by all in a way that the Latin of preexisting hymns were not.

The culmination of those first 100 years of reformed musical development and the composers whose works will be performed throughout the week at MEMF, launched the reformed hymnody of Luther (below) and his followers into the stratosphere of such giants as Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach (all the Bachs for that matter) and on, a trail that continues to the present day.

What music and composers of that era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers? Does rediscovery of works and composers play a special role this year?

Throughout the week we will be featuring compositions from the Choir Library from the Marienkirche in Lübeck (below) is a collection of music that Lübeck scholar and Buxtehude biographer Kerala Snyder catalogued and reconstructed.

The collection ended up in Vienna in the 19th century, and is a comprehensive data base that includes compositions by German and Italian composers, including Heinrich Schütz, Hermann Schein, Palestrina – the list starts with Agazzari and ends with Zucchini.

Besides the Choir Library compositions, audiences will have an opportunity to hear works of Buxtehude that have never been performed in Madison.

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 14?

The All-Festival Concert (below)  includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project.  The music will be drawn from settings and compositions based on Lutheran chorales such as Ein Feste Burg and from the Choir Library of the Marienkirche.

The concert concludes with Buxtehude’s Missa Brevis and concludes with his grand motet, Benedicam Dominum in omne tempore, written for six contrasting choirs, which Buxtehude surely composed to match the structural design of the Marienkirche. (You can hear the Kyrie from Buxtehude’s “Missa Brevis” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything. The concert series, lectures and workshop have so much to offer.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Tanzen und Springen,at Memorial Union in the Grand Hall on Thursday night.

The lecture series features some well-known Madison scholars — John W. Barker and J. Michael Allsen, plus Michael Alan Anderson (below top), director of Schola Antiqua and professor of musicology, and Jost Hermand (below bottom), Professor Emeritus at the UW-Madison.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the Head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library.

This curated display reflects the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library and open to the public through Thursday, July 19, 2018, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 9, at 11:30 a.m.  This wonderful partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Martin Luther, who was a great lover of music, said: “The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…”

Join us to hear what Luther was talking about! Get your tickets for the concert series! Attend the lectures! Take some classes! You’ll find a link for all the information about MEMF at www.madisonearlymusic.org


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Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday 

June 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is 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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

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 FM. 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 took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.


Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 2018
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: The UW’s fifth annual Schubertiade traced the composer’s entire career with lovely singing and beautiful playing

January 31, 2018
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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 FM. 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 took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The annual “Schubertiade” has become not only a firm tradition but also invariably one of the highlights of each season. And so it was again on last Sunday afternoon on-stage at the UW-Madison’s Mills Hall.

These programs have been organized, run and performed by that magnificent couple (below), Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes.

Each plays the piano and Martha also sings (below).

For this year’s fifth annual Schubertiade, the program was not just a replica of the musicales that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and his friends would enjoy. It was instead an extra-long venture (running almost three hours) in chronological comprehensiveness, offering one or more selections from each successive year of the composer’s creative span (1812-28). It was funded this year, by the way, by the generous Ann Boyer.

The result was a mixture of 21 solo songs, three vocal ensembles, two chamber works and three pieces for four-hand piano duo—the last played, of course, by our founding couple.

There was one guest singer, mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below), a sensitive artist who teaches at UW-Whitewater, but whose vibrato was somewhat excessive. Otherwise, the performers were faculty members or students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, and all of them were simply wonderful.

Of the two instrumental ensemble pieces, one was an adaptation of Schubert’s Sonatina written for violin and piano but played in an adaptation for cello by Parry Karp (below).

The other was the superb Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement), played with mature power by the Hunt Quartet (below), made up of graduate students.

The three ensemble items were delightful novelties. The first was Schubert’s rewrite of a trio, Die Advokaten (below), in which two lawyers squeeze their fees out of a rich client.

Another was a charming soprano duet. The third was a vocal quartet with piano, Des Tages Weihe (Consecration of the Day), rich in ensemble beauty. (You can hear the piece on the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The songs were also a mix of very familiar and rarely heard, so many of them rich experiences. It is daunting to single out exceptional ones, for there was so much lovely singing and there were so many masterpieces. Personally, I found myself particularly moved by the absolutely gripping performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) by soprano Claire Powling (below).

And I really admired the beautiful singing of young soprano Talia Engstrom and veteran tenor Benjamin Liupiaogo. Beyond the solo performances, though, was an interesting expansion of the Erlkönig done by four singers cast in distinct “roles” in the text.

After the whole company took bows (below), there was the customary finale in the song An die Musik (To Music) in which the audience joined the singers.

Long may this wonderful Schubertian tribute that the founding couple has created continue!


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


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