The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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

August 6, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: A curmudgeon vents his complaints concerning the music scene in Madison, Plus, this Sunday Afternoon the Pro Arte Quartet plays Haydn and Dvorak in a FREE concert at the Chazen Museum of Art that will be streamed live

November 4, 2017
21 Comments

ALERT: The UW’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 5, at 12:30 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery No. 3. The program features the String Quartet in E Major, Op. 53, No 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn and the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 16, by Antonin Dvorak. The “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen” concert will also be streamed live. Here is a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/about/news/in-the-news/sunday-afternoon-live-with-pro-arte-quartet-november-5/

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an essay by Larry Wells, a guest reviewer and a frequent concertgoer. He writes:

“As I have aged, I have become more of a curmudgeon. (My friends and family will readily attest to this.) It is in that spirit that I address some annoyances I have been experiencing over the past few years while attending musical events in Madison.

“I will start with a recent experience, attending University Opera’s performances of “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” at Music Hall (below). The two arms of any seat in the hall have two different numbers. Unless the guest was paying attention as he entered the row, it is unclear which number belongs to which seat. After attending a few shows there, I have figured it out. But I don’t believe I have ever been to a performance there when there hasn’t been confusion about which seat is which. I have routinely heard people asking others (who are generally equally clueless), and I have routinely seen blocks of people shift over one seat. You would think that someone at a great educational institution could figure out a way to make the seating less baffling.

“An equally annoying phenomenon occurs regularly at Mills Hall, also on campus. I discovered that, for choral concerts particularly, the sound in the balcony is far better than the sound on the main floor. However, the doors of the balcony are often locked and the ushers regularly say that the balcony is not open. Upon making further insistent inquiries, I usually manage to get someone to unlock the balcony, but I wonder why it is felt that unlocking it routinely is such an onerous task.

“I will also mention that, regardless of one’s seat location in Mills Hall, it is difficult not to notice that the sound clouds over the stage are in sore need of a dusting and cleaning.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a wonderfully amusing song for “The Frogs” called “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” In it the audience is reminded not to talk, cough, fart and so on. (You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“At the aforementioned performances in the Music Hall (I went twice), I saw people texting and video recording the performance even though the program has, in very small print, an admonishment not to photograph or film. At a recent choral concert in Mills Hall, texting was rampant during the performance, and there was no mention about turning off cell phones in the program. The bright screens immediately draw the eye away from the stage. I find it extremely distracting.

“At performances given by the UW Dance Department, a loud and forceful announcement at the beginning of each performance instructs the audience to turn off cell phones, no texting, no photos, etc. A similar announcement takes place not only at the beginning of the concert but also at the end of intermissions for performances at Overture Center. I think it is time for the UW Music Department to address the issue in a similar way.

“Another criticism of the way that things are done by the Music Department: Why is it so hard to find out what is being performed at a recital or concert? The Music Department has a good website with a calendar that lists the performances being given on any day, but many times the program is not included in that information. I am disinclined to go to a concert when I don’t know what the program is, and I often will go to a performance just to hear one work if it’s one I am anxious to hear. Thus, I often have to go roaming around the Music Building looking for posters or sometimes even going to the person sponsoring the performance to ask what the program is. It shouldn’t be that hard.

“An issue at Overture Center is whispering. I do not understand how people have lived to the ripe old ages that most of the audience members have and not come to realize that whispering is still audible.

“Two seats away from me at Overture Hall for my symphony subscription is a woman who, at every single performance, starts to cough as soon as the music begins, noisily unzips her purse, reaches in and fumbles around until she finds her cough drop, and then noisily unwraps its cellophane cover. Every time. It is a wonderment to me that she has not discovered that she could unwrap the cough drops in advance and have them at the ready.

“When I subscribed to the San Francisco Symphony, there were bowls of wax paper wrapped cough drops at every entrance. Not a bad idea.

“And then there is the seemingly obligatory standing ovation syndrome that has become a standard feature of every performance in Madison. In the rest of the world a standing ovation is reserved for an extraordinary performance deserving special recognition. Here I think of Pavlov’s dog and sheep. The performance ends, one person leaps to his feet (that’s the Pavlov part) and everyone else stands (that’s the sheep). At the same time the sentiment has been lost, and it all seems rather provincial to me.

“I realize that these are all first-world problems of little importance. They are minor annoyances, but that is what a curmudgeon dwells on. And it feels great to vent.”

Do you agree with any of these complaints?

Do you have any major or minor complaints to add?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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