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: Holiday carols, gospel music and classical music mix at the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas concerts this weekend — which will air later on Wisconsin Public Television for the first time

November 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the Madison Symphony Orchestra for embracing the community and putting on a memorable show.

When it comes to celebrating the holidays – and yes, the MSO does use the Christmas word – the MSO does so with a big variety of musical styles and a wide diversity of performers. That might explain why the concerts usually sell out year after year.

Beginning with caroling in the lobby before the concert to the sing-along finale, where music director and conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don their Santa hats (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) and more, “A Madison Symphony Christmas” is a joyous time for all.

Christmas classics are interwoven with enchanting new holiday music featuring members of the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir as well as guests soloists soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson.

This tradition marks the embrace and start of the holiday season for many people in Madison.

Performances of “A Madison Symphony Christmas”will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 2, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket details are below.

In addition, 45 minutes before each concert, audiences are invited to share the spirit of the holiday season singing carols along with the Madison Symphony Chorus.

TV PREMIERE

For the first time, “A Madison Symphony Christmas”can be experienced again in December — airing on Wisconsin Public Television (NOT Wisconsin Public Radio as mistakenly listed in an earlier edition) on Monday, Dec. 17, at 8 p.m., and on Christmas Day, Tuesday, Dec. 25, at 9:30 p.m. 

“Our annual Christmas concert has become a very meaningful experience for everyone involved — the choruses, orchestra musicians, singers and the audience,” says DeMain. “With the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, Madison Youth Choirs, and Madison Symphony Chorus joining our internationally acclaimed opera singers, and climaxing with the entire audience participating in our Christmas carol sing-along — one cannot help but leave the Overture Hall with a feeling that the holiday season has begun. And hopefully, you will have a big glow in your heart.”

For more information and the full program, which includes the excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah” in the YouTube video at the bottom, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas/

ABOUT THE SOLOISTS

Celebrated soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez (below, in a photo by Devon Cass) has been named one of opera’s “25 Rising Stars” by Opera News.

Lopez has received accolades for her signature role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, which she has performed countless times throughout North America.

Her debut of the role was with Martina Arroyo Foundation’s prestigious summer festival, Prelude to Performance. She has also performed the role with Opera Tampa, Opera Idaho, Ash Lawn Opera, and in her company debut with Virginia Opera. Lopez also recently made her European debut as Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with Zomeropera in Belgium.

Based in the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee) is in frequent demand by the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras for his vibrant and handsome stage presence and his distinctive vocalism.

He has won first prize in several international vocal competitions, including those sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation (Career Grant), the George London Foundation, the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation, the Sullivan Foundation, Opera Index, and the MacAllister Awards.

Highlights of Ketelsen’s recent seasons include performances at the Opernhaus Zurich, Staatsoper Berlin, Minnesota Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as performances with the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony and performances at Carnegie Hall.

ABOUT THE MADISON SYMPHONY CHORUS 

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The Chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent under the direction of Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

ABOUT THE MADISON YOUTH CHOIRS 

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) inspires enjoyment, learning and social development through the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature. The oldest youth choir organization in Wisconsin, MYC serves more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, in a wide variety of choral programs. In addition to a public concert series, MYC conducts an annual spring tour of schools and retirement centers, performing for more than 7,000 students and senior citizens annually.

ABOUT THE MOUNT ZION GOSPEL CHOIR 

Under the leadership of Leotha Stanley and his wife, Tamera Stanley, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below) has been a part of the MSO Christmas concerts since 2005. The choir is primarily comprised of members from Mount Zion Baptist Church and includes representatives from other churches as well. The choir has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and has journeyed to Europe, singing in France and Germany.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

More information about A Madison Symphony Christmasis found here: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas/.

Tickets for A Madison Symphony Christmascan be purchased in the following ways:

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

Major funding for the holiday concert is provided by: American Printing, Fiore Companies, Inc., Nedrebo’s Formalwear, Maurice and Arlene Reese Family Foundation, BMO Harris Bank, Hooper Foundation/General Heating & Air Conditioning, Judith and Nick Topitzes, and An Anonymous Friend. Additional funding provided by Colony Brands, Inc., J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., Flad Architects, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Community Carol Sing is presented in partnership with Overture Center for the Arts.


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Classical music: The first-rate and listener-friendly Willy Street Chamber Players announce their five impressive July concerts – three with admission and two for FREE — as both subscription and single tickets go on sale

June 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) remains one of The Ear’s favorite chamber music ensembles, which his why he named it “Musicians of the Year” in 2016.

Here is a link to that posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-willy-street-chamber-players-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2016/

Nothing has changed, although some programs hold more appeal than others, as you would expect for anyone.

What’s not to like about the Willys?

The Willys emphasize friendliness and informality, putting a premium on accessible communication with the audience. You never get that snobby or exclusive feeling that some classical music concerts exude.

The price is right — $15 for each concert, $40 for the series of three — plus a FREE community concerts at the Goodman Center (below) and another FREE community concert at the Union Terrace.

The playing is always first-rate by both group members and guest artists. Many of both groups are local and come from the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music or play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Middleton Community Orchestra and other groups.

The programming is always inventive and eclectic. The music the Willys play includes both old and new works, familiar and unfamiliar composers, classic and contemporary music.

The Friday night concerts start at 6 p.m. and  last 60 to 90 minutes, giving you plenty of time to do something else to kick off the weekend. (See the YouTube video by Paul Baker at there bottom.) 

True to their name, at the post-concert receptions the Willys serve snacks that promote businesses on the east side. And trust The Ear, the food is very good. 

Here is a link to the new season, the group’s third:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

And here is a link to the Willys’ outstanding, informative and well organized website where you can find much more, including the full programs; the names of the core players; how to order tickets; how to donate and support The Willys; the names and location of the food providers; the rave reviews by several critics; favorite east side restaurants; frequently asked questions; and more (don’t ignore the heading FAQ on the home page).

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

You can order season tickets and, if you go to the home page and look at each concert under Summer Series, individual tickets. You can also click on the box “Tickets Available.”

It all starts Friday, July 6, at 6 p.m. in the usually well attended Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street.

The Ear can hardly wait.


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 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 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 season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 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. 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 program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 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 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

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


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