The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 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. 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

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir celebrates 20 years with a retrospective concert and alumni singers this Saturday night

April 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a retrospective concert that includes alumni.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features favorite works from the choir’s history.

Founding conductor Gary McKercher (below top) will join current artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below bottom) – who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — to lead the choir in this special performance.

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Familiar composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Joseph Haydn share billing with Jean Belmont Ford (below), whose Sand County, a setting of Aldo Leopold’s words, will be performed.

Also on the program are a set of pieces by Howard Helvey (below top) that the WCC commissioned in 2002, and the U.S. premiere of Utyos by longtime WCC member Albrecht Gaub (below bottom).

Alumni of the choir will participate as guest singers in the final two works on the program: Haydn’s humorous Eloquence; and Gregg Smith’s serene Now I Walk in Beauty, which is based on a Navajo prayer and can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. 

Immediately following the performance, audience members are invited to join the singers for cake and refreshments to celebrate this milestone in the history of one of Madison’s premiere music ensembles.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres of commissioned works.

Artistic director Gehrenbeck has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance at are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets are also available in Madison from Orange Tree Imports, all three Willy Street Co-op locations, and from members of the choir. Tickets at the door will be available for $20 for adults and $10 for students.


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will make a LIVE RECORDING of the encore performance of the two-piano concerto it commissioned and premiered two years ago

March 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Want to be part of a live concert recording?

At first look, it seems like a typical — and in one way even repetitive – concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below).

But this particular concert — which is this Friday night, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – is anything but usual.

In fact, it promises to be unique and historic.

That is because the encore performance of the two-piano concerto “Double Rainbow” –- commissioned by the WCO and composed by Thomas Cabaniss for wife-and-husband pianists Jessica Chow Shinn (a Madison native) and Michael Shinn (below) — will be recorded live.

Also on the program is a string orchestra transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” an entrancing work that is an emotionally intense, late Romantic work that precedes Schoenberg’s 12-tone or atonal period; and the Symphony No. 58 in F Major by Franz Joseph Haydn.

For more information and tickets ($12-$80), go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iii-4/

The same pianists, who are on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, gave the world premiere of the work under the baton of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell two years ago. (The two pianists will be interviewed by Norman Gilliland at noon on this Friday during “The Midday” show on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

It proved an accessible work that clearly pleased the audience. (In 2018, Sewell also programmed the concerto for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which he directs in California.)

“I like tunes,” said Cabaniss (below) – who will attend the performance this Friday night – when he talked to The Ear in an email Q&A from 2017 on the occasion of the world premiere.

Here is a link to that interview, which also has background information about Cabaniss and the inspiration for the concerto:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/classical-music-i-like-tunes-says-composer-thomas-cabaniss-who-talks-about-his-double-rainbow-piano-concerto-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-and-guest-soloists/

Then Sewell heard the same pianists play another piece by Cabaniss – “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love” for two pianos with no orchestra or other accompaniment.

“Andrew heard them and thought the piece would be a great pairing with ‘Double Rainbow’ for a recording,” says Alan Fish, who is the interim executive director of the WCO.

A release date has not yet been set for the recording. The goal is to issue a recording in the near future, adds Fish, both in a CD format and a downloadable format. More details will be known once the Shinns have recorded “Tiny Bits,” Fish adds.


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Classical music: Pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to play Russian jazz with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night, then a recital of piano classics at Farley’s House of Pianos on Saturday night

February 21, 2019
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ALERT: The second of two FREE Friday Noon Musicales — devoted to the music of John Harbison on the occasion of his 80th birthday — will take place this Friday at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The Mosaic Chamber Players will perform. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m. The composer will be there to sign copies of his new book “What Do We Make of Bach?”

By Jacob Stockinger

Although he has heard the jazz suites by Dmitri Shostakovich many times, The Ear was surprised to learn how many modern Russian composers fell under the spell of American jazz.

Cultural difference combined with cultural exchanges might be one explanation.

But he also wonders if perhaps living in a state of psychological and emotional distress and danger – the Stalinist Terror facing composers in the Soviet Union and the Jim Crow racism facing African-American jazz artists in the United States – created a certain affinity between such apparently different musical traditions.

One thing is certain: the program that Ilya Yakushev (below), who was born and trained in Russia and now teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City – promises to be one of the most interesting programs of this season.

During his return to Madison, the Russian virtuoso pianist – who has his own interest in jazz and played a solo version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” when last here — will perform two programs at venues where he has proven to be a sensational audience favorite.

This Friday night, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, Yakushev will once again team up with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and its music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, to perform two rarely heard Russian works that demonstrate the influence of American jazz.

Those two Russian works are “Ten Bagatelles for Piano Orchestra” by Alexander Tcherepnin (below top) and the “Jazz Suite for Piano and Small Orchestra by Alexander Tsfasman (below bottom).

You can hear the Lyrical Waltz from Tsfasman’s Suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The WCO complements that with two jazz-influenced works by Igor Stravinsky (below): Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and “Ragtime.”

Then the concert concludes with one of the most iconic and well-known pieces of all classical music: the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For much more information about Yakushev and the program as well as to a link to buy tickets ($15-$80) go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-4/

SATURDAY

Then on this Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, Yakushev will perform a program of impressive tried-and-true classics as part of the Salon Piano Series.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

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

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event. Tickets can be purchased in advance from:

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809brownpapertickets.com

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

Yakushev’s recital program is:

Adagio in B minor, K. 540 (1788), by Mozart

Sonata in F minor “Appassionata,” Op. 57 (1804), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Vallée d’Obermann, S. 160 (1855), from “Années de pèlerinage, Première année” (Years of Pilgrimage, First Year), by Franz Liszt

The song “Widmung” (Dedication) by Robert Schumann as transcribed for solo piano by Liszt, S.566 (1848)

“Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” S. 514 (1862), by Liszt (below, in an 1886 photo, the year before he died, when Liszt was teaching many students, by Nadar)

In addition, on Saturday at 4 p.m., Yakushev will teach a FREE and PUBLIC master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will instruct local students.

The master class program will include:

Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, First Movement by Beethoven; performed by Kevin Zhang who studies with Kangwoo Jin.

Six Variations on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” (In My Heart I No Longer Feel) by Beethoven, performed by Daniel Lee who studies with Irmgard Bittar.

Etude in G-Flat Major (“Black Key”) Op. 10, No. 5,by Frederic Chopin; performed by Alysa Zhou, who studies with Denise Taylor.

Master classes for the 2018-19 season are supported by the law firm of Boardman & Clark LLP.

The concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts featuring exceptional artists. To become a sponsor of the Salon Piano Series, please contact Renee Farley at (608) 271-2626 or email renee@salonpianoseries.org


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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: You can hear Schubert’s last songs at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival TONIGHT at 7:30

August 30, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been informed that seats still remain for tonight’s all-Schubert concert at the popular Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Half of the concert will be piano music, including the six Moments Musicaux and a work for piano, four-hands, a genre that Schubert often composed in and performed with friends. Ya-Fei Chuang (below) is the featured piano soloist.

Also on the program is “Swan Song” – sung by tenor Charles Blandy (below top) with pianist Alison D’Amato (below bottom) of the Eastman School of Music and the University of Buffalo.

Here are program notes by the festival’s co-artistic director and prize-winning composer John Harbison about the work:

Schwanengesang is not a planned cycle. Instead it is a collection of Schubert’s last songs, as serious and searching as the two great cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.

Thematically and musically, the songs have much in common and, taken together, they are unequalled in plumbing the emotional depths of the soul, heart-wrenching and heartwarming.

We can’t be certain whether Schubert (below) ever intended them to be performed as a unity.

When they were published early in 1829, after his death at 31, it was the first publisher, Tobias Haslinger, who named the collection Schwanengesang (Swan Song), presumably to emphasize that these were the last fruits of the composer’s genius.

The sequence consists of settings of seven poems by Rellstab, six by Heine and, as an encore,  Seidl’s “Taubenpost,” quite likely the very last song Schubert ever wrote. (You can hear “Taubenpost,” sung by the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about the festival, the remaining concerts and tickets, visit www.tokencreekfestival.org


Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?_r=0

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/lending-her-ears-to-an-mit-experiment.html


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