The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New Orleans seeks to once again become an American opera capital with an emphasis on diversity

May 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

When you think of opera in America, chances are good that you think of New York City with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Houston Grand Opera; the Santa Fe Opera; and countless other opera companies in many major cities.

And when you think of New Orleans, you understandably think of jazz.

But the truth is that for a long time, New Orleans was an American capital for opera, more important than many of the other cities mentioned above.

Consider the fact that the first opera performed in the United States was performed in New Orleans in 1796. And that at one point, New Orleans was home to five opera companies.

Plus, the opera that was performed there in the past brought racial, cultural and gender diversity to an art form that often lacked it and was largely Euro-centric. (You can hear the company sing “We’re Goin’ Around” from ragtime great Scott Joplin‘s opera “Treemonisha” in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Now some singers and others (below) have formed an organization – OperaCreole — with the aim of correcting racism and restoring New Orleans’ reputation for opera,  especially that of the many African-American and Creole opera composers who were native to New Orleans.

A fine story, with an illuminating interview, recently appeared on NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/28/530085480/a-new-orleans-company-shines-a-light-on-operas-diverse-history

Another excellent story, with more focus on repertoire and history, appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-small-step-toward-correcting-the-overwhelming-whiteness-of-opera

And here is a link to OperaCreole’s own website with more information about the company and its productions:

http://www.operacreole.com

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Classical music: Jazz and classical music are closely related and work well together, says composer Daniel Schnyder. He discusses “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which the Madison Opera stages in its Midwest premiere this FRIDAY night — NOT Saturday — and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.

For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)

charlie-parkers-yardbird-logo-for-maidson-opera

The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)

Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:

daniel-schnyder-2017

What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?

I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.

I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.

I do not see classical music and jazz as two completely different things. Jazz is by nature a synthesis of European music influences and African music.

The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.

lawrence-brownlee-as-charlie-parker-opera-philadelphia

How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?

In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.

The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.

The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts —  but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.

It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.

charlie-parker-1

In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?

I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.

If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.

We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.

The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.

In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.

He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”

The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-women-opera-philadelphia

Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?

There might be many different reasons for that:

1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.

2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.

3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.

4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.

5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.

6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.

7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.

The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.

8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.

I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.

9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-female-singer-opera-philadelphia

Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?

I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.


Classical music: After six years of success, “Grace Presents” — a series of monthly FREE concerts at noon on Saturday — has been suspended indefinitely

January 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The “Grace Presents” series of FREE monthly Saturday noon concerts has been suspended indefinitely.

The series presented folk music, jazz, ethnic, country and other genres in addition to classical music.

Grace Presents sign

The Ear feels sorry about the unfortunate move, but offers kudos and thanks for a job well done. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the Liebeslieder Waltzes by Johannes Brahms sung at Grace Presents.)

Over several years, he has heard memorable performances of sonatas and suites, cantatas and preludes, of vocal, string and piano music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and other composers. Included here are some photos of past events.

The concerts – held in the wonderful interior (below) of Grace Episcopal Church on the downtown Capitol Square — always attracted a large, friendly and appreciative crowd, and the series became a showcase to spotlight some performers who have a lower profile, including graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

grace episcopal church ext

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

MBM Grace stained glass window

No specific reason for the action was given, and The Ear wonders if it had to do with finding financial sponsors or perhaps with the difficulty of booking performers in a city with such competitive programming of music.

It was not an easy job to set it up and keep it running. So The Ear offers congratulations and thanks to the many people who made the series successful for many years. (Below are violinist Laura Burns, who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Rhapsodie Quartet, and pianist Jess Salek, who teaches and performs with the Mosaic Chamber Players and the Madison Youth Choirs.)

Laura Burns Jess Salek Brahms Grace Epis

Here is the official statement:

Dear Grace Presents Community:

After six seasons of offering free community concert programming monthly at the historic Grace Episcopal Church, the Grace Presents Concert Series has been suspended indefinitely.

From performers such as Yid Vicious, Kenn Lonquist, The Dang-It’s, the Madison Bach Musicians (below) and so many others we have enjoyed presenting these concerts free of charge to the Madison community and the thousands of downtown Madison visitors.

MBM Grace cantatas singers 2

It is our hope that this concert series may find a champion in the near future, but until then, the red doors will no longer be open on Saturdays for free concerts to the public.

Thank you for your support of this series and local musicians. (Below is pianist Yana Groves who played music by Bach and Rachmaninoff at Grace Presents).

Most Sincerely,

Grace Presents Board Members

Yana Groves 1

PS: Thank you to the following:

– Bruce Kasprzyk for recording dozens of our concerts and providing his services free of charge

– Oakwood University Woods for printing our programs each month

– Bruce Croushore for initiating the Grace Presents Concert Series seven years ago

– folks who have served on the Grace Presents board

– over 100 musicians who performed for a Grace Presents concert

– all of you who have attended and supported live music at Grace Church

We especially thank our many donors and supporters over the years, and in particular Dane Arts, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, the Madison Arts Commission, and the Wisconsin Arts Board


Classical music Q&A: Soprano Alyson Cambridge talks about mastering crossover genres and how to attract ethnically diverse audiences to classical music and opera. She sings with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in its annual Christmas concerts this weekend.

December 1, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with guest groups and soloists all under the baton of music director John DeMain, will kick off the holiday season with traditional Christmas concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The concerts will celebrate the holidays with a wide range of music from Johann Sebastian Bach, Irving Berlin, George Frideric Handel, John Rutter and Franz Schubert to holiday favorites and rocking Gospel selections -– topped off with the audience adding its voice to carols at the end.

Concert highlights include:

Soloists soprano Alyson Cambridge (below top) and tenor Harold Meers (below bottom), who are accomplished national operatic singers.

Alyson Cambridge 1

Harold Meers

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), directed by Beverly Taylor, with 125 members, who come from all walks of life to combine their artistic talent.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

The Madison Youth Choirs (below in a photo by Dan Sinclair), directed by Michael Ross, which combines young voices for a memorable experience.

Madison Youth Choirs Ragazzi HS CR Dan Sinclair

Mt. Zion Gospel Choir (below), directed by Leotha Stanley, which uses jazz, blues and gospel harmonies to “raise the roof” in creating captivating music.

Mt. Zion Gospel Choir

And, last but not least, the audience members who join in the singing.

Concertgoers are encouraged to arrive at the Overture Hall lobby 45 minutes before the concert so they can be moved by the Madison Symphony Chorus leading carols in the festively lit lobby.

MSO officials stress that these concerts typically sell out, so early ticket purchases are encouraged.

Single Tickets are $16 to $84 each, available at ww.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

New subscribers can receive up to a 50% discount. For more information and to subscribe, visit www.madisonsymphony.org/newsub or call (608) 257-3734.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.                                                           

Here is an especially insightful Q&A that soprano Alyson Cambridge kindly gave to The Ear:

Alyson Cambridge 2

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers, including how you first got involved in music including; when you started music lessons; the Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to pursue music as a professional career; and your current projects and future plans?

I began voice lessons when I was 12 years old, but had always been musical and theatrical. I studied piano from age 4 to 14 and dabbled in violin and flute along the way.

In truth, I came to classical singing and opera because a neighbor overheard me playing around and impersonating an opera singer as a joke. (There were all types of music playing around my house — everything from classical, to reggae, to Calypso “soca” to jazz to pop — and I imitated all the singers I heard.)

However, my “opera singer voice” wasn’t half  bad and I was encouraged to start voice lessons, which I did. It was my first teacher who encouraged me to begin training classically.

In terms of pursuing it as a career, I think I was honestly split for a long time. I knew I loved singing and performing, but I also really enjoyed sports, my academic studies, being social, sort of “normal” teenage stuff.  As a result, I was a double-degree undergraduate at Oberlin College, earning degrees in both sociology/pre-law and Voice Performance.

My final year at Oberlin, I decided to apply only to the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute for my master’s studies, and said if I didn’t get it I would go to law school.  If I DID get into either school, I decided I’d consider it a sign to give a music career a real shot and five years to “make it.”

I ended up at Curtis, where I only spent one year, and the next year I was in New York, having won the Metropolitan Opera National Council  Auditions, and joining the MET’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  The next year I made my MET debut … and that’s how it all happened! (Below is a photo of Alyson Cambridge playing Julia  in Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat.”

Alyson Cambdirge as Julia in Show-Boat

You will be singing in “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam (below top and at the bottom in a YouTube video) and the “Gloria” by Francis Poulenc (below bottom). Talk about “crossover” singing. How does singing classical music help or hinder you in singing jazz, pop and holiday music, and vice-versa?

In truth, I have only seen advantages to singing both classically and “crossover.”  Although I trained classically, I grew up singing and being exposed to pop, musical theater, jazz — you name it.  So, I have a natural affinity for the non-classical, and I also study with musical theater, jazz and crossover coaches as well as my classical/opera teachers and coaches.

I think it’s important to approach all styles with respect and not try to make a style sound only one way or use only one part of your vocal color or stylistic palette.  I love and enjoy both, so I sing both. And, in speaking with audiences following a performance in which I sing both, I find audiences love the variety too.

Adolphe Adam

Francis Poulenc

What is it that attracts you most in each genre? What is the most challenging part of each genre? Do they appeal to different parts of your personality? What do you think of holiday music and holiday concerts?

Both genres offer their own unique set of musical colors, and I like highlighting those when I am singing them.  You may, for example, get a glorious high-soaring melody over a full orchestra in a classical piece. In a traditionally more “crossover” or contemporary piece, you might highlight the intimacy and the nuance in the text and storytelling in the song (like “White Christmas,” for example) in a way you may not be able to do or that is applicable in a piece like Poulenc’s “Gloria.”

I love all kinds of holiday music, and think that’s what’s so great about the concert that Maestro DeMain (below, conducting in a Santa hat in a photo by Bob Rashid) has put together — there really is something for everyone, and it’s ALL wonderful!

DeMain Santa Bob Rashid

You have worked with John DeMain before in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Jerome Kern’s “Showboat.” Do you have anything to say about your experiences with maestro DeMain? Have you performed before in Madison and do you have anything you want to say about performing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain in Madison?

I adore John DeMain! When I was asked to do these concerts with him, I was thrilled for yet another opportunity to work with him.  We have visited some of the greatest pieces of American opera and musical theater together over the years, and to come together now on a program that celebrates the most wonderful classical and popular holiday music is something to which I am really looking forward.

This will be my first time performing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Having heard nothing but raves about them from friends, colleagues and Maestro DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad), I can’t wait!

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Do you have any suggestions about how to attract audiences that are more ethnically diverse to classical music?

This is a great question, and an answer that I think comes down to one simple idea: EXPOSURE!  I have yet to meet a child or adult, of any race, gender or socio-economic background who, upon seeing and hearing a live opera or classical concert or performance, no matter how grand or small, who hasn’t been moved, touched or curious to hear or learn more.

I have an upcoming television appearance on Nov. 30 in which I will be the first opera singer ever to be a featured performer on Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Centric TV’s Soul Train Awards. The first broadcast on Sunday is estimated to reach over 4.5 million viewers, and I know that the viewership will not be the “typical” opera audience…and I think it is GREAT, and I can’t WAIT for it to happen!  We taped the show on Nov. 7 in Las Vegas, and the reaction from the 3,000 people in attendance at the show taping was awesome.

An audience filled of primarily R&B, rap, hip hop and soul artists and fans, got to hear and see opera in a whole new light, one that was much different from the stereotypes perpetuated in ads and rooted in outdated ideas of what opera and classical music are. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I think more opportunities and advantages should be taken and can come from exposure like that. (Below is a photo by Richard Termine of Alyson Cambridge singing in George Gershwin’s short jazz opera “Blue Monday.”)

alyson cambridge as Vi in Gershwn's jazz opera Blue CR richard termine

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

I am appreciative of the curiosity that comes with crossing genres and reaching new audiences, and the conversations that come with it.  It’s having these conversations that I think helps pique interest in new potential listeners and concert-goers.

I am also immensely thankful for my family, without whose constant support and encouragement to follow my slightly less-than-traditional opera singer path has meant more than words can express!  I’ve never been one to “color inside the lines,” and having wonderful colleagues and mentors like John DeMain and so many others, and friends and family who support and respect that is an invaluable thing!

 

 


Classical music: Tangos will be featured in a FREE concert by the Yzafa Quintet this Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Unity Chapel in Spring Green.

July 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Monday night at 7:30 p.m. the Yzafa Quintet will perform a FREE concert of tangos at the Unity Chapel in Spring Green. Members of the quintet include (bottom left to right) Doug Brown, Michael O’Brien, August Jirovec, Amber Dolphin and Jamie Davis.

Quinteto Yzafa

To The Ear, it sure seems like this certainly has been the year for South American music in general and tangos in particular in the Madison area.

The Wisconsin Youth Chamber Orchestras’ Youth Orchestra (below) left yesterday for an extensive 10-day tour of Argentina, the home of the tango, which legend says was first danced in brothels.

Here is a link to background about the tour:

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/2014-international-tour/

And here is a link to the tour blog:

http://wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

Earlier this summer, The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performed a dozen tangos by Astor Piazzolla and other composers with the help of Uruguayan pianist and tango master Pablo Zinger (below).

Pablo Zinger at piano

And flutist Stephanie Jutt (below), who is a co-founder and co-artistic director of BDDS, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, has performed and recorded a bunch of tangos she brought back from a sabbatical year she spent in Argentina.

BDDS 2014 Jutt and Syles play Angel Lasala

Well, you really can’t blame them at all for programming tangos.

Was there ever a sexier or more sensual,  more seductive dance –- even if you don’t actually dance it?

Tango

And Madison isn’t alone in succumbing to Tango Fever.

Here is a note from our blog friend Kent Mayfield, who heads up the Rural Musicians Forum and is bringing the urban decadence of the tango out to the wholesome farm fields in south-central Wisconsin:

TANGO TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT IN SPRING GREEN CONCERT

The region’s only group specializing in traditional Argentine tango, Quinteto Yzafa, takes the spotlight in a concert in Spring Green’s Unity Chapel on Monday night, July 28, at 7:30 p.m.. The concert is part of an annual series sponsored by the Rural Musicians Forum. (You can hear a sample of a tango by the Quinteto Yzafa in a YouTube video of a performance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the bottom.)

The tango is a partner dance that originated in the 1890s in working class districts of Buenos Aires and along the Río de la Plata, the natural border between Uruguay and Argentina. Soon it became wildly popular around the world.

The dance derives from the Cuban and Argentine dance styles. It is said to contain elements from the African community in Buenos Aires, influenced both by ancient African rhythms and the music from Europe.

In 2009, the tango was declared part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.

Quinteto Yzafa (pronounced “ee-SAH-fuh”) is dedicated to a fresh, dynamic approach to traditional Argentine tango music.

With backgrounds in classical music as well as jazz, bluegrass, Arabic music, Latin American folk and popular dance styles, the musicians perform tangos, waltzes and milongas from the 1910s through the present day.

Their dynamic new arrangements have the variety and intensity to entertain concert audiences, but they never lose the danceable essence of the true tango. They delight schoolchildren and serious tango dancers alike.

The ensemble’s sound features the bandoneón (below), the characteristic 71-button relative of the accordion whose distinctive timbre is essential for traditional tango music, filled out with the rich tones of a full string section (violin, cello and double bass) and piano.

Bandoneon

Bandoneon player and composer Michael O’Brien says he was inspired by the Argentinian classical composer Astor Piazzola (below bottom).

“There was something about the combination of sinuous, expressive melody interspersed with periods of brutal dissonance and percussive playing that lodged itself in my memory,” O’Brien says.

astor piazzolla

That was the beginning of a life-long interest which has led him to learn Piazzolla’s own instrument, the bandoneon, travel to Argentina to study, research and perform tango music, and even to make a career out of it. In his day job, O’Brien is a professor of ethnomusicology. O’Brien has created for the group a repertoire of little known and original tangos, waltzes and milongas as well as many tango classics.

Quinteto Yzafa has passion and zing … At times bold and brash and at other times heartbreakingly tragic, it covers every emotion in the spectrum.

The Unity Chapel (below top is the exterior, below bottom is the interior) is located at 6596 County Road T, just east of Highway 23. The chapel is a living testament to the simple and contemplative lives early settlers created for themselves in southwest Wisconsin.

There is no ticket charge but a freewill offering to support the concert series will be taken.

Unity Chapel in Spring Green exterior

Unity Chapel in Spring Green interior

For more information: www.ruralmusiciansforum.org

OR contact Kent Mayfield ruralmusiciansforum@yahoo.com.

https://www.youtube.com/watch


Classical music: The FIFA World Cup of soccer is a perfect time to become acquainted with the astonishing music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

June 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Go ahead. Forget the scores.

I know, I know.

In the 2014 World Cup of championship soccer (below), this week the U.S. beat the odds-makers and won against favored Ghana while Spain disappointed the odds-makers when it lost to underdog Chile.

World Cup 2014 playing

Nonetheless, The Ear is no jock.

But he knows a lot of people here and around the world will spend this weekend watching the competition.

So he got to wondering.

What would be good classical music to post in honor of the World Cup soccer championships that are taking place in Rio de Janeiro and many other stadiums (below) throughout Brazil between June 12 and July 13?

World Cup 2014 stadiums

And then last Saturday I went to the Cello Choir concert (below), a free concert given by the “the National Summer Cello Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and BAM!!! there was the answer.

Here is a link to the positive review I did of the concert:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/classical-music-the-ear-takes-the-cello-cure-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-and-now-cant-wait-for-another-treatment-next-summer/

Cello Choir 2014 Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1

It was there that I heard two totally absorbing works by the 20th-century Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Villa-Lobos (below) was a very prolific composer, writing over 2,000 works in his lifetime (1887-1959). Given such productivity it is not surprising that some works seems second-rate. What is more amazing is how many seem so memorable and so first-rate.

Boy, did that man ever have a sense of melodic line, of poignant harmonies, of contagious and fiery Latin African rhythms. His music seems as robust and straightforward as the portraits that show the beefy composer chomping away on big cigars.

The Ear suspects that Villa-Lobos would have been a lot of fun to know and pal around with. He seems as outsized and rich in natural resources as his native country.

Villa-Lobos BW

And so does his body of work.

So why isn’t Villa-Lobos better known and more often performed outside his native country? I can’t think of the last time a work of his was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or by pianists and chamber music groups at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Maybe some readers can.

And Villa-Lobos used his native land to inform his work and the effect can be enthralling and even magical. He is a sure remedy to Eurocentric programming, and especially with a growing Hispanic population. (I know: Portuguese, not Spanish, is the colonial culture and language of Brazil. But still.)

Anyway, there I was, sitting in Mills Hall and listening to two outstanding works performed by the choir of 16 cellos and one soprano in works designed to “Brazilian-ize” Johann Sebastian Bach and update his Baroque musical style -– which I think they succeed in doing. Bach goes ethnic!

The first work was the famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 –- with its soaring aria-like Cantilena that has been recorded by great singers from folksinger Joan Baez (below top) to opera divas such as Victoria de Los Angeles, Anna Moffo (below bottom), Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathleen Battle and Barbara Hendricks.

Joan Baez

anna moffo

The performance that I heard live featured the UW-Madison soprano Anna Whiteway, who was absolutely exquisite. She had fabulous pitch, big volume, smooth vibrato, great diction and lovely tone. She was superb, and the cellists and conductor thought so too.

Cello Choir 2014 Anna Whiteway

Then there was the less famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, which included a gorgeous second movement and fabulous fugal finale.

So below is a sample from YouTube, where you can find quite a lot of quality performances of music by Villa-Lobos.

And I think that during the month-long World Cup play in Brazil, we can’t do better than to listen to other samples of beautiful music by this prolific composer who seems to The Ear way, way underplayed and under-appreciated.

Personally, these days The Ear is checking out the Bachianas Brasileiras, the Choros and the chamber music, especially the cello sonatas and the string quartets.

But there is also much more in the way of piano music, guitar music and vocal music.

So from now to the end of the World Cup, I will periodically offer examples of music by Villa-Lobos.

And what do you think of Villa-Lobos?

Do you have a favorite piece that others should listen to?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: They made chamber music hip. The “forever young” Kronos Quartet turns 40 -– after changing the business model of recording, the repertoire of string quartets, and the public’s taste in chamber music.

April 5, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

They made chamber music hip when it used to be square.

I’m talking about the Kronos String Quartet, which for decades has, in Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics, remained “Forever Young.”

But they aren’t young except in spirit, where it really counts.

In case you missed it, a week ago Friday was the 40th anniversary of the internationally acclaimed and ever-performing, ever-recording, ever-commissioning and ever-morphing Kronos Quartet (below).

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet, which has a local Wisconsin tie through the original cellist Jean Jeanrenaud (below), who  retired in 1998 from the group and its hectic touring, made history in many ways.

Joan Jeanrenaud

For one, the Kronos changed the notion and model of string quartets and chamber music in general. They were unafraid to go electric when needed. And so they expanded the audience for string quartets and chamber music to younger people.

The Kronos focused on modern and contemporary music and commissioned hundreds of new works from contemporary composers. That is a formidable legacy for the future.

The Kronos focused on crossover music and broke the mold of separate categories. (Below, they are playing outdoors in Warsaw, Poland, in 2006.)

Kronos quartet outdoors in warsaw in 2006

The Kronos focused on ethnic music and Third World composers. (Below, they are playing with celebrated Chinese pipa player Wu Man, who is in the center of the photo.)

kronos quartet with chinese wu man

In the end, they sold millions of recordings and helped change the business model that string quartets and chamber music used to survive and prosper. (Below, they are performing on the BBC Radio in 2012.)

Kronos Quartet plyaing on BBC Radio 2012

Some critics of the Kronos might say they didn’t change it for the better. But what the Kronos did has remained permanent and popular. It changed the scene for many quartets that came after them, including the popular Quartetto Gelato and the Turtle Island String Quartet.

So to catch up with all that the Kronos represents, here are links to some pieces from background history and backstories to concert reviews.

Here is the story that was on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/03/27/294780979/the-kronos-quartet-still-daring-after-all-these-years

And here is a link to the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence” that also offers sounds samples of pioneering work done by the Kronos. (Below, in 2013 in photo by Jay Blakesberg.)

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/03/25/293849927/kronos-quartet-at-40-songs-we-love

kronos quartet 2013 CR jay blakesberg

Here is a fine, comprehensive profile by The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/arts/music/kronos-quartets-40-year-adventure.html?_r=0

Here is a review of the concert in Carnegie Hall that appeared in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/31/arts/music/kronos-quartets-wide-interests-project-from-the-stage.html?_r=0

Plus here is a review of the same program done earlier on the West Coast by The Los Angles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-kronos-quartet-review-20140317,0,4644880.story#axzz2xe4TjZSL

The Ear likes a lot of the Kronos’ work. But curiously I prefer some of the ethnic and crossover music -– a version of rock and roll icon Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (in a popular YouTube video at the bottom) is the famous example — better than much of the contemporary stuff.

Two of my favorite Kronos CDs are “Pieces of Africa,” with its contagious rhythms, and “Winter Was Hard,” with its short but intense miniatures that included both early music and new music.

kronos winter-was hard CD

Kronos_Quartet-Pieces_Of_Africa-Frontal

What is your favorite Kronos Quartet album or even single performance?

And what role did the Kronos Quartet play in your own appreciation of chamber music, especially string quartets, and contemporary classical  music or new music?

The Ear wants to hear.

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