The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: This Saturday night brings concerts by the Festival Choir of Madison and a harpsichord rededication recital by Trevor Stephenson

November 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received announcements for the following two events that will place on Saturday night:

FESTIVAL CHOIR OF MADISON

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will present the first concert of the season — “Angels and Demons” — on this Saturday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, in Madison.

The choir and artistic director, Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below), will take listeners on a Dante-inspired journey — from the Inferno in “The Divine Comedy” through Purgatory all the way to Paradise — as interpreted by composers Karl Jenkins, Zdenek Lukas, Gyorgy Orban, Alfred Schnittke, Joseph Rheinberger, Rodion Schedrin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Marteen Spruijt. (Sorry, but there has been no word on specific works to be performed.)

Guest pianist Kyle Johnson, organist Ted Reinke, percussionist James McKenzie and a string ensemble will accompany the choir throughout the journey.

Concert admission, with general seating, is $10 for students, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for adults, with tickets available at the door the day of the concert. Tickets can also be purchased online at: https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2018/11/3/angels-and-demons

The Festival Choir of Madison is an auditioned, mixed-voice volunteer choir of over 50 experienced singers. It performs thematic concerts of artistically challenging choral music from around the world for listeners who enjoy traditional, modern and eclectic works, and for singers who enjoy developing their talents with others.

To learn more about the organization and see upcoming concerts, go to: www.festivalchoirmadison.org

HARPSICHORD AT IMMANUEL LUTHERAN CHURCH

On this Saturday night, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, there will be a harpsichord rededication celebration and concert.

The appearance and musicality of this renovated double-mansuel. French 18th-century instrument at Immanuel Lutheran have recently been restored and upgraded under the exceptional guidance and expertise of Trevor Stephenson (below bottom), artistic director and founder of the Madison Bach Musicians.

Immanuel is excited to share the instrument (below) with the Madison community by presenting Stephenson in a rededication harpsichord concert. (Composers on the program include Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. No program of specific works has been provided.)

A pre-concert interactive lecture discussing the instrument and rebuilding process will precede the concert starting at 6:30 p.m.

A freewill offering is appreciated at the concert.

A brief reception will follow, and all are welcome.


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Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians hold their fourth annual Baroque Summer Chamber Music Workshop with a faculty concert and afternoon performances and classes this coming Tuesday through Friday. Many events are open to the public

July 21, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth annual Madison Bach Musicians Summer Chamber Music Workshop offers an evening Faculty Concert and various afternoon classes exploring baroque dance, ornamentation, continuo playing, specific instrument master classes, and more. (Below is a photo by Mary Gordon from last year’s workshops.)

The workshops, classes and concerts will be held this coming Tuesday through Thursday, July 24-27, at the West Middleton Lutheran Church, 3763 Pioneer Road, in Verona, Wisconsin.

Tickets for the Madison Bach Musicians Faculty Concert on Wednesday night from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. are $15.

The Friday all-workshop concert from 2 to 3:30 p.m. is FREE and open to the public.

An Auditor’s Pass for afternoon programing for the entire festival — including the Faculty Concert — is $40.

MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson, MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim and other outstanding faculty members will share their expertise over four afternoons.

Adds Stephenson: “We’re excited about a wonderful new venue for the event—at West Middleton Lutheran Church, which is located at the intersection of Mineral Point and Pioneer Roads, just 10 minutes west of West Towne Mall.

“Twenty-four participants ranging in age from high school to older adulthood will get personalized ensemble coaching from outstanding instructors in violin, cello, piano, harpsichord, recorder and flute.”

Kim (below) adds: “I am thrilled. Of our 24 participants this year, almost half are returning students, which we love.  Most of the our participants come from the Dane County area, but last year we had a participant from France and this year we have a couple from Oklahoma.

“Chamber music is the best way to get to know people as you are learning a new piece – you have a personal voice, but you also need to listen and blend with the other voices.  I am always amazed to see the transformation both musically and socially over the four days of the workshop. I am so excited to meet everyone and to see the magic that happens when these musicians work together.”

Harpsichordist Jason Moy (below) will be returning this year to discuss the art of continuo playing.

Lisette Kielson (below) who offers recorder workshops throughout the United States will lead a class “To Flourish and Grace: Ornamentation!”

Sarah Edgar (below), a specialist in 18th-century stage and dance performance, will focus on the interplay of music and dance rhythms in two afternoon baroque dance classes.

MBM cellist Martha Vallon (below) will explore how to play creative and enjoyable continuo lines for cellists and bassoonists.

The Wednesday night Faculty Concert from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. will feature works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann, Boismortier, Biber and a special Baroque dance performance-–all performed by the faculty members who specialize in early music with play period instruments.

For information about the specific schedule and enrolling in the workshops, go to take a look the schedule

You can also find more general information at: http://madisonbachmusicians.org/education-and-outreach/summer-workshop/


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Classical music: On Saturday night, the UW Wind Ensemble will mark a first by performing a FREE concert that will also be live-streamed

April 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Something important — even pioneering or groundbreaking — will take place this on Saturday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below) will give a FREE concert that will also be a LIVE-STREAMED – a first for the UW-Madison.

Live-streaming of concerts by students, faculty members and guest artists is something that many music schools are now doing on a regular basis.

They include big schools like the Yale School of Music and smaller institutions like the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis.

Streaming allows alumni and other listeners all over the world to hear the concert in real time. It can be prestigious form of outreach and a terrific tool for fundraising and recruiting students. Imagine the worldwide audience for, say, the Pro Arte Quartet, which has toured to South America, Europe and Asia.

The Ear has heard several reasons why live-streaming is not yet standard practice at the UW-Madison. Those reasons include the lack of specialized staff, too little equipment, too little money, and difficulty or expense in obtaining the rights from performers and composers or publishing companies.

This time, the live streaming is being done on a paid basis by a local School of Music alumnus who has the expertise and experience. Sources at the school say that more concerts are likely to be live-streamed next season.

The program on Saturday night features the “French Suite” of Francis Poulenc; “Circuits” by Cindy McTee (below top); and the Symphony in Three Movements by the retired UW tuba professor and composer John Stevens (below bottom). You can hear the opening of the work by John Stevens, which was recorded for Naxos Records, in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The performance will be done under the batons of director Scott Teeple (below top) and two graduate student assistants: O’Shae Best (below middle) and Cole Hairston (below bottom).

For the link for streaming and more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-3/


Classical music: For you, what were the best, most memorable or most enjoyable concerts of 2017? Here are the highlights for critics John W. Barker and The Ear

December 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the calendar year is only the mid-point of the new season and the concert calendar.

Still, it is a good time to take stock of the past year and the various performers and performances that we heard.

John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, recently published his top picks of concerts in 2017 in Isthmus. Here is a link to his year-end assessment:

https://isthmus.com/music/best-2017-classical-music/

To be fair, The Ear doesn’t always agree with Barker on the quality of some pieces and of certain performances. But by and large the two of us are in accord, and even when we aren’t, the Ear respects and learns from Barker’s expertise and experience.

The Ear would only add several things he found that Barker doesn’t mention:

The all-Mozart concert in the fall by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) — with UW faculty clarinetist Alicia Lee and San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau filling in for Parry Karp, was a much-needed balm in these times of distress.

If you are a fan of amateur music-making and love the music of Bach, the revival of the Bach Around the Clock marathon in March proved enthralling. (Below are violist father Stan Weldy and mandolinist son Alex Weldy.)

You heard all kinds of musicians, from students and adult amateurs to professionals, in all genres of music, including arrangements and transcriptions that Johann Sebastian would no doubt have approved of.

Pianist Richard Goode (below), who played this fall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showed the power of softness and quiet.

His subtle playing was full of nuance in preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach; in a late sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; in the only sonata by Anton Webern; in a generous group for Chopin works; and in an unexpected encore by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. All in all, Goode proved a wonderful reprieve from some of the heavier, louder and more dramatic keyboard playing we hear.

But if you wanted drama, you only had to attend the recital by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below). He excelled in everything, especially the total-body playing of the solo piano arrangement by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which wowed the house. But he also showed great restraint, tone and subtlety in contemporary American composer John Corigliano “Ostinato” based on that symphony’s famous second movement.

Then Taylor finished up with contrasting sets of six Musical Moments by Franz Schubert and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

BUT NOW IT IS YOUR TURN: YOU BE THE CRITIC!

Recognizing that the best concert is not necessary the most memorable concert, and that the best or most memorable concert is not necessarily the most enjoyable concert, please tell us:

What did you think was the best concert and best single performance you heard in 2017?

What was the most memorable classical music experience you had in 2017?

And what was the most enjoyable classical music performance you heard in 2017?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
2 Comments

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 Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


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