The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park returns this Saturday night, July 20, in Garner Park and celebrates 18 years plus a glimpse of the upcoming season

July 15, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about one of the most highly anticipated musical events of summer, one that offers lots of family-friendly fun and serious musical enjoyment:

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill) celebrates its 18th year on this coming Saturday night, July 20, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side at the intersection of Rosa Road and Mineral Point Road.

The annual free concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s 2018-19 season and provides a preview of the 2019-20 season. (You can hear a sample of past years in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A Madison summer tradition that often attracts over 14,000 people, Opera in the Park is an enchanting evening of music under the stars, featuring selections from opera and Broadway.

Opera in the Park 2019 features soprano Jeni Houser, soprano Michelle Johnson, tenor David Blalock and baritone Ben Edquist.

Jeni Houser (below) has sung many roles with Madison Opera, most recently in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and she returns next season as Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Michelle Johnson (below) scored a major success with Madison Opera as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana last season.

David Blalock (below) debuted with Madison Opera in 2014 and returns this season as Orpheus in Orpheus in the Underworld.

Ben Edquist (below) is making his debut, and will return to the company as Hawkins Fuller in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers, about the Lavender Scare against LGBTQ peoplein February.

The four soloists are joined by the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

The evening is hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and WKOW TV’s 27 News co-anchor George Smith (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Opera in the Park is the greatest performance in Madison Opera’s season,” says Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). “It offers a truly magical blend of beautiful voices, music from many centuries, and thousands of members of our community relaxing together under the same night sky. I am grateful to all of our supporters who share our belief in the community-building power of music and help us produce this concert every summer.”

Opera in the Park 2019 features arias and ensembles from Verdi’s La Traviata, which opens the 2019-20 season in November; Spears’ Fellow Travelers, which will be performed in February; and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny); Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale; Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City); Romberg’s The Student Prince; Funny Girl; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; and more. As always, this spectacular evening will include one number conducted by the audience with light sticks (below).

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted but not sold in the park.

On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members may not leave items in the park prior to this time. Lots of porta potties will be provided. Transportation via golf carts is available for those who have limited mobility.

The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 21, at 8 p.m.

For more details about attending Opera in the Park and for more extensive biographies of the singers, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/oitp/

While Opera in the Park is free to attend, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations, and individuals who believe in the importance of music in the community.

Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2019.The Presenting Sponsor is the BerbeeWalsh Foundation. Other sponsors are the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation; Full Compass Systems; the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation; University Research Park; Colony Brands; the Evjue Foundation; Johnson Financial Group; MGE Foundation; National Guardian Life; the Wisconsin Arts Board; Dane Arts; and the Madison Arts Commission.

WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida are media sponsors for this community event.

RELATED EVENTS

The Prelude Dinner at Opera in the Park 2019 is at 6 p.m.
This annual fundraiser to benefit Opera in the Park helps support Madison Opera’s free gift to the community.

The event includes dinner catered by Upstairs Downstairs, VIP seating at the concert, and a reception with the artists following the performance. Tickets are $150 per person or $1,150 for a table of eight.

More information about Opera in the Park and about the 2019-20 season, including subscriptions, is available at Madison’s Opera’s home website  www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: Next season the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will expand to two performances of its winter Masterworks concerts by adding a Saturday night concert in Brookfield, near Milwaukee

May 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Next season will mark the 20th anniversary of Andrew Sewell (below top) coming to Madison to serve as the music director and principal conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom).

It is hard to imagine a better Bravo! or anniversary gift for the maestro – who has said he wants the WCO to become a chamber orchestra, as its name implies, for the entire state of Wisconsin — than what will in fact take place: the WCO will expand its winter Masterworks concerts to two performances by adding a Saturday night performance at 7:30 p.m. in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts (below) in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. (Sewell is also the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California.)

Madison performances of Masterworks will continue to take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

You can find out more about the Masterworks programs for next season by going to the WCO home website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/masterworks

There you will find the usual eclectic mix of new guest artists and new or neglected composers and repertoire that has marked Sewell’s tenure and brought him critical acclaim.

Pianist Orion Weiss will perform the popular  Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 – “Elvira Madigan” – by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; violinists Giora Schmidt and Eric Silberger will perform concertos by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Niccolo Paganini, respectively; harpist Yolanda Kondonassis will perform a concerto by Argentinian Alberto Ginastera; and Andrew Balio (below), principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will return to Madison where he grew up and perform a 1948 trumpet concerto by Italian composer Andre Tomasi.

Early music and new music to be featured includes works by: Donald Fraser (an acclaimed English conductor, composer and arranger, below) who now lives in Illinois, and often comes to Madison); Joseph Martin Kraus, known as the “Swedish Mozart”; Norwegian composer Johann Svensen; and three English composers (always favorites of Sewell who was born and educated in New Zealand) who are John Marsh, James Macmillan and York Bowen. (In the YouTube video at the bottom you can hear the English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods — a native Madisonian who will return next season to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra — recording the Scherzo movement from Donald Fraser’s “Sinfonietta,” the same work that the WCO will perform.) 

Works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Sergei Prokofiev also figure prominently, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday in 2020.

Also on the website, you will find the upcoming season of Wednesday night Concerts on the Square for this summer (June 26-July 31) plus the dates and themes – although no guest artists or works — for 2020 (June 24-July 29).

Go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances

You can also find information for next season about the WCO performing George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” with the Madison Ballet; the Young Artist Concerto Competition; the free Family Series; and the community Super Strings program for elementary students.

To receive a brochure with information about all these events and about how to get tickets — an “early bird” discount on subscription tickets runs through May 31– call (608) 257-0638 or go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org


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Classical music: Superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax headline the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series next season

March 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following major announcement to post about the Wisconsin Union Theater, which The Ear calls “the Carnegie Hall of Madison” for its long and distinguished history of presenting great performing artists.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (below top, with Shannon Hall below bottom) is delighted to announce the schedule for its 100th Concert Series during 2019-20.

In this celebratory year, we introduce two exciting additions: A transformative gift by Kato Perlman establishes the David and Kato Perlman Chamber Series, ensuring the world’s best chamber ensembles continue to perform as a regular feature of the Concert Series.

Additionally, two Concert Series performances will take place in the Mead Witter School of Music’s new Hamel Music Center (below). We look forward to increased collaborations with the school of music.

The 100th anniversary series was curated by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee, with wife-and-husband advisors pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Tristan Cook), who are celebrated musicians and directors of several festivals of classical music and also serve as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. (You can hear them performing music by Johann Sebastian Bach in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The first season of this distinguished series was in 1920-1921, and featured soprano May Peterson, violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch.

Nineteen years later, in 1939-1940, the series moved to the newly opened Wisconsin Union Theater. The first season in the Wisconsin Union Theater featured bass singer Ezio Pinza, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, violinist Joseph Szigeti, pianist Robert Casadesus and, the highlight, contralto Marian Anderson.

Through these 99 years, numerous renowned, accomplished and prominent classical musicians have played in the series, the longest continuous classical series in the Midwest. Some made their debut here and continued returning as their fame rose.

See this article for an interview with former WUT director Michael Goldberg about the history of the series.

The schedule for the 100th Concert Series, including the inaugural David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series, is:

Oct. 6 – A cappella choral group Chanticleer, Hamel Music Center. Program To Be Announced

Nov. 2 – Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), Shannon Hall. All-Beethoven program, including Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

Dec. 6 – The Kalichstein, Laredo and Robinson Piano Trio (below), Shannon Hall. “Canonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann; Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and Piano Trio in B-flat major “Archduke” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Jan. 25, 2020 – The Escher String Quartet (below), featuring David Finckel, Shannon Hall. Quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Schubert.

March 5, 2020 – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – featuring David Finckel, Wu Han, Paul Neubauer and Arnaud Sussman, Shannon Hall. Sonatine by Antonin Dvorak; Piano Quartet by Josef Suk; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms.

March 7, 2020 – Wu Han with the UW Symphony Orchestra, Hamel Music Center. Program TBD.

March 28, 2020 – Violinist Gil Shaham (below) with pianist Akira Eguchi, Shannon Hall. Program TBD.

May 2, 2020 – Special Gala Concert with Renée Fleming (below). Shannon Hall. Mixed Recital.

All programs are subject to change.

Subscriptions will be available starting March 18, 2019. Subscribers benefits include: access to the best seats, 20% off the price of single tickets, no order fees, a free ticket to Wu Han’s performance with the UW Symphony Orchestra, and the opportunity to be first to purchase tickets to Renée Fleming’s 100th Anniversary Gala Concert.

Find more information about the series and the artists at www.uniontheater.wisc.edu. Subscriptions will be available on March 18 at www.artsticketing.wisc.edu.


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Classical music: Organist and composer Chelsea Chen debuts at Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Organist Chelsea Chen (below) makes her Madison debut on this Tuesday night, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall as part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Organ series.

Ticket information is below.

Chen brings to her Overture Hall premiere an array of widely known classical pieces plus her own original composition.

Chen’s performance begins with Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta and Edvard Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46— continuing with Chen’s original work, the Taiwanese Suite, Camille Saint-Saens’ Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3, Ad Wammes’ Miroir, and finally, selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Composer Gjeilo (below) has praised Chen’s interpretation of Sinfonietta, which the organist has performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46, by Grieg is one of the most easily recognizable compositions within the musical art form. Subtitled “Morning,” it is the first of two suites that Grieg (below) transcribed from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 Norwegian play Peer Gynt.

The opus, albeit a short first movement from the suite, intends to instill imagery of the sunrise over the North African desert. Despite this, it is more commonly associated with the sweeping mountains, fjords and lakes that mark Norway’s landscape.

Chen’s own Taiwanese Suite combines the dynamic range of the organ with inflections of traditional Asian folksongs. It is composed of three movements: “Hills in the Springtime,” “Moonlight Blue” and “Mountain of Youth.”

Inspired by the works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and others, Saint-Saens (below) composed a variety of arrangements and selections for numerous occasions. By age 10, the French composer and child prodigy had given his first concert. His Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3 is, as some consider, the pinnacle of his body of compositions. (You can hear Chen’s playing of the Finale from the “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Miroir was composed by Dutch composer Ad Wammes (below) for Stephen Taylor to celebrate the organist’s appointment to the Nicolaïkerk, a church in the Netherlands. In an unconventional mirroring — hence the title — the right hand repeats the higher voices in the same pattern throughout the song, whereas the left hand varies texture, voice and tone in the lower registers. The result is a calming, low hum that is lifted by the glistening echoes of the upper registers.

To Holst, The Planets suite could be framed as “a series of mood pictures,” with its seven movements. Ironically, Holst (below) seemed to heavily dislike his explosive popularity resulting from the suite’s compositional structure. Despite his supposed negativity towards the piece, its inherent superb qualities of each movement — no two are alike — became a staple of evocative composition.

Following an academic career at the Juilliard School and Yale University, Chelsea Chen has practiced under the tutelage of known names in the musical world, such as Paul Jacobs and John Weaver. For more information about her, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/chelsea-chen/

Single Tickets are available for $20 each and can be purchased online at http://madisonsymphony.org/chen, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two tickets for $10 each. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

This performance is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ (below) that was custom-built by Klais Orgelbau of Germany. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ.


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Classical music: WQXR names the best classical recording of 2018. Plus, here are other guides to help you use gift cards

January 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is another gift list that The Ear just found. Even though it was compiled before the holiday, he looked for it but didn’t find it.

It’s another of the top classical recordings of 2018. But this time, the list – with plenty of sound samples — comes from WQXR, the famed classical music radio station in New York City.

It may be too late to use for holiday gift giving – unless it is for yourself. After all, there are a lot of gift cards waiting to be redeemed.

Also below are several other lists so that you can cross-check and compare. The CD of Chopin ballades and nocturnes by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (below), for example, makes almost all the lists, which is a good sign of quality. (You can hear Andsnes play the Ballade No. 4, The Ear’s favorite, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Here is the link to WQXR:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-releases-2018/

Here is a link to the top picks by critics for The New York Times and the Top 10 for National Public Radio (NPR):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/22/classical-music-gift-guide-or-gift-or-both-critics-for-the-new-york-times-name-their-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2018-so-does-national-public-radio-npr/

And here are the nominations for the 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/


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Classical music: A ticket to the concert here by the Imani Winds is an ideal gift to mark the African-American holiday Kwanzaa

December 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The African-American and Pan-African harvest and heritage holiday of Kwanzaa started Wednesday and runs through Jan. 1.

Many people know the name of the events that mark the African Diaspora.

But do you know more about the holiday itself?

Do you know the seven principles of Kwanzaa?

Do you know the history and person behind the celebration, which started the United States in 1966?

Here is a link to a comprehensive view of Kwanzaa in Wikipedia:

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

If you are looking for a suitable gift to give during Kwanzaa, it would be hard to beat tickets to the concert by the Imani Winds (below) on Friday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Imani Winds have been nominated for a Grammy Award, and have established a reputation for world music and commissioning new works.

For more information about the group, the performers, ticket prices and how to buy tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

The group’s name comes from a principle of Kwanzaa — namely, faith. And one member, Valerie Coleman, composed a signature piece based on the first principle of Kwanzaa – Umoji, or Unity. You can hear that work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Then in June, from June 6 to June 9, Valerie Coleman (below) returns to Madison as the Composer-in-Residence for the second annual LunArt Festival — a cultural and all-women festival devoted to performers, composers, writers and artists.


Classical music: Here are playlists of the best classical music for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What music would you choose?

December 24, 2018
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REMINDER: A well-edited one-hour excerpt of the recent Christmas concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra will air on Wisconsin Public Television at 9:30 p.m. this Tuesday, on Christmas Night. The Ear saw the first airing of the broadcast and highly recommends it. Both the programming and the performing are top-notch. It is a perfect way to wrap up your holiday.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas Day.

Some people celebrate tonight and some people celebrate tomorrow.

But no matter when you mark the holiday with gifts, gathering and special food, great music has an integral place in the celebration.

Indeed, music seems nothing less than a great gift to the entire world. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

To help you celebrate, here are playlists of the best classical music, from Medieval times through Baroque music up to living composers, for marking Christmas.

Here are two playlists, with a total of two hours of music, already compiled and available on YouTube. Be sure to hit SHOW MORE at the top to see the complete title, composer’s name and timing of the selections:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrFCdi7apV8&list=PLcGkkXtask_cCaCLkrmuDUfukHct9eut-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voIrzsxeE6w

And perhaps best of all, here are several lists in the same place from famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City. They not only have generous sound samples, but also allow you to choose what genre of music you prefer — say, choral music or brass music or piano music to string quartet chamber music:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/essential-christmas-recordings/

What music would you choose as favorite Christmas fare?

The Ear wants to hear.

Enjoy! And Merry Christmas to all!


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Classical music: Combining a ticket to a live music performance with a book or recording that is tied to the concert’s program makes a great holiday gift

December 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays seem to arrive earlier each year.

The Ear isn’t sure why that is.

Whatever the reason, a lot of holiday gift shopping can by now seem last-minute and somewhat frantic.

But if you are shopping for a classical music fan, you are in luck if you go local.

The best way to please the recipient and also to support the local arts is to give a ticket to a live concert – always the most powerful and exciting musical experience — perhaps coupled to a related book or recording. (Below is UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in a photo by Michael R. Anderson).

This blog doesn’t have room to list separately all the many musical groups in the area. But here are some samples that might interest you.

Through Monday, Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is once again offering a special deal for the remainder of the season. Tickets to both the “Beyond the Score” program and the remaining four season concerts, including Mahler’s mammoth “Symphony of a Thousand,” have been reduced to two price ranges: $10 and $25 for the former; $25 and $50 for the latter.

For more information, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/holiday-tickets-sale/

If you want to see what other performers and presenters are offering – say, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Overture Center and the Madison Opera, to name just a few of the more prominent names – just go to Google and type in their name to search and go to their home page on the web.

Many of them have all sorts of other discounts for students, seniors, subscribers, groups and others.

Don’t forget that Madison features many FREE concerts, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

True, a few of the most attractive and gift-worthy UW concerts are ticketed ($17 for adults, $7 for UW students) – including the annual Schubertiade, the yearly recital by pianist Christopher Taylor and the world premiere of the new Viola Sonata by John Harbison (below). But you could offer to take someone to a free chamber music or orchestral concert and provide companionship, transportation and maybe even dinner.

Here is a link to the very busy lineup and informative previews at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: https://www.music.wisc.edu

To top it off, you could add one of two outstanding local books The Ear puts at the top of the holiday gift guide.

The first is John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach” (below top) which is short, very readable, thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative in an autobiographical way that helps us celebrate both the 80th birthday of Harbison and the upcoming 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The second book, now in its second printing, is a comprehensive history of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) done by John W. Barker, who often writes for this blog as well as Isthmus.

Of course, a CD with one of the composers or works on a program also makes a fine complement, whether it is a Mahler symphony, a Bach suite or Schubert’s “Swan Songs” from his final year.

Finally, The Ear wants to know: What are your suggestions for a for holiday gift of classical music?

It could be a live concert or a recording, either something new or an old favorite.

It could be a particularly informative and enjoyable or entertaining book, including biographies of Leonard Bernstein (including one by his daughter Jamie Bernstein, below), whose centennial has been celebrated this season.

Over the next few days, The Ear will post suggestions  and Top 10 lists by professional critics. But in the end, it is the audience, the ordinary public, that many people want to hear from.

So perhaps you will leave your ideas in the COMMENT section.

Thank you! And have Happy Holidays — a Merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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Classical music: Greg Zelek closes out the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s organ recital season this Friday night with music by Bach, Schumann, Franck and Liszt

May 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) organist Greg Zelek (below) will perform a recital this Friday night, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

According to the MSO, “Zelek thrilled the Overture audience with his spellbinding debut recital in 2016, and then again with his appearances in 2017 and 2018 as the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new Principal Organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ (below).”

This past weekend, Zelek played an impressively virtuosic organ passage in the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek and was warmly received by the audience.

This time, Zelek returns to close out the season’s concert organ series in a “Voices of Spring” program of music that includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, John Weaver, Cesar Franck and Gioachino Rossini as well as the  monumental 30-minute Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem unjam” by Franz Liszt.

For the complete program and an audiovisual sample of Zelek’s playing Bach, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/zelek

Zelek recently completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and an Artist Diploma at the Julliard School. Adds the MSP: “Greg continues to cultivate his reputation as one of the most exciting organists in the American organ scene.” (You can hear Zelek play Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D  minor in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20.

Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/zelek, (608) 258-4141 or the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by Walter and Karen Pridham. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund.

With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ, which is the stunning backdrop of all MSO concerts.


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