The Well-Tempered Ear

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra cancels its first Masterworks concert and launches an online virtual Winter Chamber Series in January

November 22, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With the surge in the coronavirus pandemic, the dominos are starting to fall again — this time for the spring series of live, in-person concerts that had been planned.

Friday night brought important news from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in photo by Mike Gorski).

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) has canceled its first Masterworks concert, with guest cellist Amit Peled, in late January. In its place the WCO is launching its first-ever digital Winter Chamber Series.

The virtual, online series of digital concerts will feature the ensemble’s 34 players in smaller groups of four to eight, That will be safer for both players and audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four home-viewable virtual online concerts are planned: Jan. 22, Feb. 26, March 26, and April 16. Programs are not available except for the first concert.

Also included are a pre-concert talk with WCO music director and maestro Andrew Sewell (below top, in a photo by Alex Cruz) and Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below bottom), and post-concert reflections with musicians of the WCO.

The ticket price for each concert, which will run 60-75 minutes, is $30 per household. A ticket entitles you to one viewing of the concert between Friday, Jan. 22, and Monday, Jan. 25. The concert will start streaming at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Patrons who have already purchased season subscription tickets can apply that to the full series of four concerts.

Tickets are available online at the Overture Center box office. See below.

The program for the first Winter Chamber Concert on Jan. 22 is:

Four Canzonas by the Baroque Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli (below):

“Tzigane” (a term for music by Hungarian gypsies or Romani) for Wind Quintet by the contemporary American composer Valerie Coleman (below):

The first movement of the famed String Quintet in C major, D. 956, by the Austrian Romantic composer Franz Schubert (below):

Four Octets by the 20th-century American composer and jazz musician Alec Wilder (below), which you can sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.

To see more background about the composers, more details about the concert and purchase tickets, go to: https://www.overture.org/events/wco-chamber-series

You can also check out the series as it progressively gets announced on the WCO home website: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/winter-chamber-series

The concert series sounds like a terrific substitution for the regular concerts that cannot yet take place.

But The Ear wonders if the price per concert is a bit steep, given that comparable concerts by UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music , the Wllly Street Chamber Players and Just Bach are free – although they do ask for donations — and that the Madison Opera charged $50 for its entire fall digital series while the Wisconsin Union Theater charges between $10 and $20 per virtual concert.

The Ear likes the eclectic programming, but also thinks it is kind of teasing and unsatisfying to offer just the first movement of such an organic masterpiece and profoundly beautiful work as the Schubert Cello Quintet. Doing one movement of a chamber music work somehow seems very different from doing one movement of a symphony.

It would also be nice to see the programs for all the concerts plus a series discount as an incentive.

What do you think about the WCO’s Winter Chamber Series?

What do you think about the price and the programming?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet performs the fifth installment of its complete Beethoven cycle this Friday night at 7:30 in a FREE live-streamed concert

November 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

As we draw close to Dec. 16 and the 250th birthday celebrations for Ludwig van Beethoven (below, in 1803), one of the joys and highlights of the Beethoven Year continues to impress.

The UW-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet will give the fifth installment of their complete cycle of the 16 string quartets by Beethoven this Friday night, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m.

Here is a direct link: https://youtu.be/nZN7tRu8N_k

Members of the quartet (below, from left) are: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

The FREE online virtual concert is a livestream from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, where the quartet will once again play with masks and social distancing (below).

No in-person attendance is allowed.

“It’s different playing without a live audience,” says cellist Parry Karp. “But we’re getting used to it. Not having to play other live concerts or to go on tour around the state also allows us to focus more. And the upside of playing online is that we saw quite a number of viewers from Brazil and Argentina listening to our last concert.”

Before each of the two quartets, Professor Charles Dill (below in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who teaches musicology at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will give a short introductory lecture.

The program features one early quartet and one middle “Razumovsky” quartet: String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800); and String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, “Razumovsky,” Op. 59, No. 2 (1806). 

You can hear the Ebène Quartet play the hymn-like slow movement of the Razumovsky quartet, with its use of a Russian theme, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is more background from Wikipedia about both quartets:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_Quartet_No._3_(Beethoven)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_Quartet_No._8_(Beethoven)

For more information about the program, the names of the orchestra’s players and impressive historical background about the Pro Arte Quartet, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-beethoven-string-quartet-cycle-program-v/


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Cellist Camille Thomas makes her Madison debut online from Paris for the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night

November 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Union Theater’s fall virtual Concert Series performances will begin this Saturday night, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. CST with a live online performance from Paris by the acclaimed cellist Camille Thomas (below).

The “Midnight in Paris” recital – performed in Paris and streamed — features music by Claude Debussy, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. The performance will be preceded by a live 30-40 minute online Q&A with Thomas and pianist Julien Brocal on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. CST.

Here are the specific works on the program, which will last about 75 minutes with no intermission:

Debussy, “Clair de Lune” (arr. Roelens)

Nadia Boulanger, “Three Pieces” for cello and piano

Ravel, Kaddish

Chopin, Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65; and Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op. 3 

Tickets for this online event are $10 for UW-Madison students, $18 for Wisconsin Union members, and $20 for all other patrons.

For more information about the Thomas’ performance – including a video and how to purchase tickets — visit union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/camille-thomas.

Thomas (below), a Franco-Belgian cellist, says she uses her music to bring people together from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Thomas released her second album, called “Voice of Hope,” with the exclusive Deutsche Grammophon this past June. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Thomas play a solo version from the album of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from his opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”)

Thomas plays the Feuermann Stradivarius cello (1730, below) — named for the famous 20th-century cellist Emanuel Feuermann who played it — with a bow by Eugene Sartory, who is regarded as one of the finest bow makers in history. Joining her for this performance will be pianist Julien Brocal.

“Camille Thomas’s extraordinary talent makes her one of the most captivating artists of our time, as evidenced by being the first cellist in several decades to be signed by the major record label Deutsche Grammophon,” says Wisconsin Union Theater director Elizabeth Snodgrass. “Her ‘Midnight in Paris’ program brings us closer to her roots and reflects the beauty and charm of her personality as well as her musicality.”

The Ear has listened to some of Thomas’ performances on YouTube and finds her tone, intonation and phrasing outstanding.

The performance by Camille Thomas is the start of the fall Concert Series events, which includes a concert with pianist Jeremy Denk (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times) on Friday, Dec. 11.

In its 101st year, the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series is one of the oldest uninterrupted series of its kind in the United States.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) has served as a cultural center for community members and visitors for more than 75 years. The WUD Performing Arts Committee plans many of the Theater’s events, including the Concert Series.

While usually held in-person and most often in Shannon Hall, the Wisconsin Union Theater team will hold this fall’s theater events in a virtual format for the health and safety of patrons, artists and team members in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The team aims for all of its spaces, including online ones, to be accessible. Those that need accommodations can reach out to the Wisconsin Union Theater team at wisconsinuniontheater@union.wisc.edu

The WUT team says it continues to evaluate what changes may need to occur related to the spring Concert Series events as well as other spring Theater season performances.

The Wisconsin Union Theater has made multiple commitments to take a stand against racial injustice, including being more than allies, being activists; using the arts to create social justice; remembering students are future leaders and must be part of the change; using its voice to influence leadership and being firm in its resolve; and making space, stepping back and learning how to give up undeserved or unnecessary power and privilege.

 


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UW-Madison’s new Marvin Rabin String Quartet makes its premiere when it performs a FREE online concert this Friday night

November 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Nov. 6, will see the premiere concert by the new Marvin Rabin String Quartet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The concert takes place virtually and online on the music school’s YouTube channel. It is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. and run to 8 p.m.

Here is the direct link: https://youtu.be/ObJMMA220Jw

The new string quartet — which replaces The Hunt Quartet — is named in honor of the late Dr. Marvin J. Rabin, who was an internationally acclaimed music educator and Professor Emeritus at UW-Madison.

Rabin (below) is best known as the founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

The members of the Marvin Rabin String Quartet are graduate students at the UW-Madison.

Members are (below from top left) are: Fabio Saggin, viola; Ben Therrell, cello; Ava Shadmani, violin; and Rachel Reese-Kollmeyer, violin.

They will perform the virtual concert in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the Hamel Music Center.

There is NO in-person attendance

The program is:

String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Two Armenian Miniatures for String Quartet –“The Red Shawl” (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Echmiadzin Dance” – by the Armenian priest Komitas (1869-1935, see 1902 photo below) as arranged by S. Aslamazyan

Here is Komitas’ Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komitas

15-MINUTE INTERMISSION

String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

 


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University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2020-21 season and plans for Opera in the Park on July 25. Plus, today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What music would you choose to mark the event?

April 22, 2020
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ALERT: Today, April 22, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator. To celebrate it, in the YouTube video at the bottom is “The Earth Prelude” — a long work, both Neo-classical and minimalist, with beautiful photos, by the best-selling, award-winning Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. It has more than 2.3 million views.

What music would you listen to to mark the event? Leave suggestions with YouTube links, if possible, in the Comment section.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has just announced its upcoming 2020-21 season.

As usual, there are three works. The fall and spring operas take place in Overture Hall and the winter production, a Broadway musical, will use the Capitol Theater.

Below are the titles with links to Wikipedia entries for more information about the works and their creators:

Here are the titles:

“Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) – with the popular “Anvil Chorus” — by Giuseppe Verdi (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 8, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_trovatore

“She Loves Me” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (below) – the same team that created “Fiddler on the Roof” — in the Capitol Theater on Friday night, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Jan. 31, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in English with projected text.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She_Loves_Me

“The Marriage of Figaro,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Figaro

You can see a short preview peek — with music but no word about casts, sets or production details — on Vimeo by using the following link: https://vimeo.com/398921274

For more forthcoming information about the season, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

OPERA IN THE PARK

You may recall that this spring the Madison Opera had to cancel its production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about this summer’s 19th annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

It is still slated for Saturday, July 25, in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, with a rain date of Sunday, July 26.

But the opera company is being understandably cautious and says: “At this time, we are proceeding with Opera in the Park as scheduled.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community are our top priority, and we are closely following the guidelines and recommendations of public health officials. We are prepared to make necessary decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions.

“We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate these circumstances.”

For updates and more information about Opera in the Park, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2019-2020-season/oitp2020/

 


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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Classical music: Four Madison Opera singers will collaborate with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) to perform Winterfest Concerts this Friday night and Saturday afternoon

March 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, over a weekend, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) perform the Diane Ballweg Winterfest Concerts.

But this year a new collaboration will take place.

On this Friday night, March 13, at 7 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue, the senior WYSO Youth Orchestra (below) will accompany four singers from the Madison Opera’s Studio Artist program in which they transition to a professional career by singing minor roles and being understudies for leading roles.

Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for youth under 19, and are available in advance through the Campus Ticket Office, and at the venue 30 minutes before the concert.

WYSO says the Friday night concert is close to selling out.

Here are some details: “Now in its eighth year, the Studio Artist Program is an important part of Madison Opera’s artistic and educational mission. The 2019-20 Studio Artists are four singers (below) in the transition between their education and their professional careers.

They are (from left, clockwise): baritone Stephen Hobe; mezzo-soprano Kirsten Larson; tenor Benjamin Hopkins; and soprano Emily Secor. They will sing duets, trios and quartets. There will also be an orchestral overture and a prelude.

WYSO music director Kyle Knox, who is also the associate music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct both singers and instrumentalists. (You can hear WYSO members talking about playing and performing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Says Knox (below): “Young instrumentalists rarely get to accompany soloists and singers. Playing opera in particular is something that tends to come much later in their careers, and for many of them, never at all.”

The program includes excerpts from favorite operas, including: arias by “Nabucco” and “Rigoletto” by Verdi; “La Clemenza di Tito” by Mozart; “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell” by Rossini; “Lohengrin” by Wagner; “The Elixir of Love” by Donizetti; “Carmen” by Bizet; and “La Boheme” by Puccini. For a complete program with specific titles plus ticket information, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org/diane-ballweg-winterfest-concerts/

For more detailed information about the Madison Opera Studio Atrists program and its WYSO collaboration, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org/in-collaboration-with-madison-operas-studio-artists/

SATURDAY

On this Saturday, March 14, in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, the following groups will perform. No programs have been posted.

11:30 a.m. — Opus One and Sinfonietta (below)

1:30 p.m. — Harp Ensemble (below) and Concert Orchestra

4:00 p.m. — Percussion Ensemble (below) and Philharmonia Orchestra

The WYSO Winterfest Concert series is funded by: Diane Ballweg, with additional funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board; Dane Arts; Madison Arts Commission; American Girl’s Fund for Children; Eric D. Batterman Memorial Fund; and the Coe and Paul Williams Fund for New Musicians.

The performance in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall was made possible by an additional gift from Martha and Charles Casey. The appearance of the Studio Artists in this program has been underwritten by the Charles and Mary Anderson Charitable Fund, Charles and Martha Casey, and David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd.

 


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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