The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Bastille Day! But instead of militarism, let’s celebrate the holiday with revolutionary French music by a revolutionary French composer. What French music would you choose?

July 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is July 14, known in the U.S. as Bastille Day.

That is the day in 1789 when the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by the masses and political prisoners were freed – marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The tradition is to play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that grew out of the revolution. Usually there is a military side to the arrangement of the anthem and the performance of it.

After all, it was a Bastille Day parade that even inspired President Trump to stage his egotistical “Salute to America” – satirically dubbed “Tanksgiving” — on the Fourth of July this year in Washington, D.C..

But The Ear has had quite enough of militarism and of the lying draft dodger who became commander-in-chief using patriotism to camouflage his un-American actions and ideas.

With no disrespect to those who served or are serving in the armed forces, there are many ways besides the military to be patriotic and even revolutionary.

So this year The Ear is choosing something subtle and less martial to mark the day.

It is a performance of “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks), a prelude for solo piano by Claude Debussy (below), who described himself – in an age where German and Italian music ruled – simply as a “French musician.” But make no mistake: Debussy, who was rejected for admission to the Paris Conservatory, was indeed a revolutionary figure in music history for his innovations in harmony and form.

(Perhaps this past season, you heard Marc-André Hamelin give an astoundingly virtuosic performance of “Fireworks” as an encore after his Sunday afternoon concerto performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Listen carefully and at the very end you will hear a subtle reference to the Marseillaise that adds the right touch to the pyrotechnical celebration of  “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Added to that, the fiery performance in the YouTube video at the bottom is by Robert Casadesus, a deservedly famous French pianist.

Finally, The Ear thinks you can celebrate Bastille Day with any number of French composers and French works, many of which remain neglected and underperformed. (The Ear is particularly partial to the music of Gabriel Faure, below, who taught Maurice Ravel.)

Who is your favorite French composer?

What is your favorite French piece of classical music?

Leave a comment with, if possible, a YouTube link.

Happy Bastille Day!!


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

May 16, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closes its season with a dark and unorthodox symphony by Shostakovich as well as lighter suites by Bizet and Debussy

May 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) ends its winter Masterworks season this coming Friday night, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

And it is going out in a big, eclectic way.

The WCO will perform under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell and the WCO will be joined by two guest singers: soprano Mary Mackenzie, a former Madison resident and member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); (below top); and the Grammy-nominated bass Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Both critically acclaimed singers are familiar to Madison audiences from past appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Madison Opera, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and previous appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

They will all join in the major work that opens the concert, the Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), his penultimate symphony that runs about 50 minutes and is highly unorthodox in its form.

Shostakovich wrote his symphony in 1969, and dedicated it to the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Perhaps to avoid more confrontations with the government of the USSR and perhaps to critique global events such as war,  the composer gave it a very international flavor.

Written for strings and percussion with vocal soloists, the symphony is composed in 11 movements. It is also set to poetry by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (below top), the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (below middle) and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (below bottom). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a live recording of the first movement from the work’s world premiere in Moscow in 1969.

In the late work, Shostakovich (below, in 1950) – always suspect by the Soviet state and in danger during the Stalinist Terror — seeks to portray the idea of unjust and premature death that aroused deep feelings of protest in him. Shostakovich emphasized, however, that it was not out of pessimism that he turned to the problem of mortality but in the name of life on this earth.

The concert concludes on a lighter, more upbeat note by celebrating the innocence and joy of youth in two charming suites: “Jeux d’enfants” (Children’s Games), Op. 22, by Georges Bizet and the “Petite Suite” (Little Suite) by Claude Debussy.

Tickets are $12-$80. To buy tickets and to see more information about the program and detailed biographies of the performers, go to:

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


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 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 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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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: Madison Youth Choirs will perform music of Madison’s nine sister cities this Sunday afternoon and evening

December 8, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“This semester, Madison Youth Choirs singers (below) are embarking on a musical journey across the globe as they explore and perform compositions connected to the diverse cultures inhabiting Madison’s nine sister cities: Ainaro, East Timor; Arcatao, El Salvador; Camaguey, Cuba; Freiburg, Germany; Kanifing, The Gambia; Mantua, Italy; Obihiro, Japan; Tepatitlán, Mexico; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

“As we study the wide variety of musical forms that emerged from these nine regions and think about the reasons we’re drawn to establish sister city relationships, we’re examining both the common forces that drive the creative expression of artists from all cultures and the unique contributions that artists from our sister cities have made to the worldwide musical canon.

“We invite you to join us for a culminating winter concert series celebrating these international choral connections.

WHERE

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concerts, “Sister Cities

First Congregational United Church of Christ

1609 University Ave., Madison

WHEN

Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4:00 p.m. Boychoirs

7:00 p.m. High School Ensembles

Tickets available at the door: $10 for general admission, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance. 

This concert is generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the state of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

“SISTER CITIES” PROGRAMS

Sunday, December 10, 2017, First Congregational Church, Madison

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Now We Are Met” by Samuel Webbe

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folk song

“Tecolote” Spanish lullaby, arr. Victoria Ebel-Sabo

“S’Vivon” Traditional Jewish folk song, arr. Valerie Shields

Con Gioia

“Peace Round” Traditional round, text by Jean Ritchie

“Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter

“Murasame” by Victor C. Johnson, text: 11th-century Japanese poem

“Guantanamera” Cuban folk song, text by José Marti

Capriccio (below)

“A Circle is Cast” by Anna Dembska

“Ich will den Herrn loben alle Zeit” by Georg Philipp Telemann, arr. Wallace Depue

“Ma come bali bene bela bimba” Traditional Italian, arr. Mark Sirett

“Soran Bushi” Japanese folk song, arr. Wendy Stuart

“Yo Le Canto Todo El Dia” by David L. Brunner

4:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm, arr. Randal Swiggum

Purcell (below)

“La Nanita Nana” by José Ramon Gomis, arr. David Eddlemann

“Es is Ein Ros entsprungen” by Melchior Vulpius

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folksong, arranged by Purcell choir members

Britten  (below)

Two Elegies by Benjamin Britten

  1. Old Abram Brown
  2. Tom Bowling

“No che non morira” (from Tito Manlio) by Antonio Vivaldi

Holst

“O Rosetta” by Claudio Monteverdi

“O là, o che bon echo” by Orlando di Lasso

“We Are” by Ysaye Barnwell

Combined Boychoirs

Chorus of Street Boys from Carmen by Georges Bizet

“Kimigayao” (The National Anthem of Japan) Melody by Hiromori Hayashi

7:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Gwyneth Walker

Liebeslieder Walzer by Johannes Brahms, text by Georg Friedrich Daumer

  1. Wie des Abends (from Opus 52) (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
  2. Vogelein durchrauscht die Luft (from Opus 52)
  3. Nein, geliebter, setze dich (from Opus 65)

Ragazzi

“Bar’chu” by Salamon Rossi

“The Pasture” (from Frostiana) by Randall Thompson

“Mogami Gawa Funa Uta” by Watanabe/Goto, based on folk materials, arr. Osamu

Shimizu

Cantabile

“Angelus ad pastores ait” (from Sacrae Cantiunculae, 1582) by Claudio Monteverdi

“Gamelan” by R. Murray Schafer

“Mata del Anima Sola” by Antonio Estévez

Cantabile and Ragazzi (below)

“The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” Traditional carol from Trinidad, arr. Stephen

Hatfield

Combined Choirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm


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