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
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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.


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Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


Posted in Classical music
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