The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: The opera world is divided over accusations of sexual harassment against superstar tenor Placido Domingo. Here is how John DeMain reacted. How do you react and what do you believe?

August 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

By now, you have probably heard about the allegations of sexual harassment recently made anonymously against the still-active superstar Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (below), 78, who holds the record for the most opening-night appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

What you might not have heard is how divided the opera world is over those accusations, which are now being formally and independently investigated.

Much of that division falls along lines of Europe versus the United States. The former has so far not cancelled upcoming appearances while the latter was quick to. And Domingo has been defended by famed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (below, with Domingo).

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct and sexual assault continue to be perhaps the most controversial issues amid many similar or more serious criminal allegations against conductors James Levine, Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti as well as many teachers and orchestra players.

Perhaps the best account of the divided reactions came in a story from The New York Times. Here it is:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/18/arts/music/placido-domingo-opera-harassment.html

One sign of the difficulty in dealing with the situation can be found in the carefully worded, balanced and empathetic Facebook comment by maestro John DeMain, the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

DeMain has often worked with Domingo, perhaps most notably in the famous 1992 Concert for Planet Earth in Rio de Janeiro, which DeMain conducted. (You can hear Domingo singing an aria by Puccini and see DeMain conducting the orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Says DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad): “Thinking about the Placido Domingo controversy. While I’m not in a position to take sides in this very sad situation, I would just like to say that in my many interactions with this great tenor over many decades, I personally never witnessed him do anything that was inappropriate. He was always a kind and gentle person to me and my family. I wish him and his family well through this difficult time.”

Here is a link to DeMain’s Facebook page if you would like to read comments from others or leave one of your own: https://www.facebook.com/jldemain

How do you react to the accusations?

What do you believe should happen to Domingo?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 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 mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: For reviving and securing Bach Around the Clock, The Ear names Marika Fischer Hoyt as “Musician of the Year” for 2017

December 30, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Regular readers of this blog know how much The Ear likes to recognize community-based initiatives, amateur participation, and events that are affordable or free to the public and so help build and widen the audience for classical music.

On all those counts, the Musician of the Year for 2017 goes to Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) who revived Bach Around the Clock and has given it a seemingly secure future.

In Madison, Bach Around the Clock was originally sponsored and put on for several years by Wisconsin Public Radio’s music director Cheryl Dring. But when Dring left for another job five years ago, WPR ended the event, which got its national start in New Orleans and is now celebrated in many other cities to mark the March birthday of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Yet it is not as if Fischer Hoyt didn’t already have enough on her plate.

She is a very accomplished and very busy violist.

As a modern violist, she plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and is a founding member of the Ancora String Quartet (below), with which she still plays after 17 seasons. She is also  a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

As a specialist on the baroque viola, she is a member (below far left) of the Madison Bach Musicians who also plays for the Handel Aria Competition and the Madison Early Music Festival.

In addition, she is a private teacher who finds time to attend early music festivals around the country.

To get an idea of what she has done to put Bach Around the Clock (BATC) on a stable footing here, read the update posting from a couple of days ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/classical-music-bach-around-the-clock-2018-is-set-for-march-10-here-is-a-year-end-update-with-more-impressive-news/

Not only did Fischer Hoyt obtain the participation of some 80 performers — students and teachers, amateurs and professionals, individuals and groups– she also got cooperation, facilities, performers and help from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, on Madison’s near west side.

She obtained donations of money and even food to stage the event.

She herself played in the event that drew hundreds of listeners.

She lined up local sound engineers who recorded the entire event, which was then broadcast in parts by Rich Samuels (below) on WORT-FM 89.9 and streamed live as far away as London.

She served as an emcee who also conducted brief interviews about the music with the many performers (below right, with flutist Casey Oelkers)

Recognizing she can’t keep doing so much by herself, the energetic Fischer Hoyt has turned BATC into a more formal and self-sustaining organization with a board of directors.

She has sought advice from experts about Bach and Bach festivals.

She applied for and won one of five national grants from Early Music America in Boston.

She has consulted legal help to make BATC a nonprofit charitable organization, which should help guarantee a steady stream of funding.

And artistically, she has added a back-up mini-orchestra to accompany singers and instrumentalists.

The event this year is on Saturday, March 10, a little early for Bach’s 333rd birthday (March 31, 1685) but a smart decision to avoid spring break in the schools and at the UW, and to help recruit the many performers who are also important, if secondary,  Musicians of the Year.

But the center of the event, the force holds it all together, is Marika Fischer Hoyt and all the hard work, done over a long time, that she has invested in making Bach Around the Clock a permanent part of Madison’s classical music schedule and cultural scene.

If you didn’t go last year, try it this year. It is wonderful, inspiring and enjoyable.

Please join The Ear in congratulating Marika Fischer Hoyt for making Bach Around the Clock the success it now is and giving it the future it now has. Leave your comments about her and BATC in the COMMENT section.

To celebrate, here is a YouTube video of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach:


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