The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Meet Alexander Gonzalez, the new assistant band director at the UW-Madison who is also a UW alumnus

August 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release from the UW-Madison about its new assistant band director. Like many of his musician colleagues at the UW-Madison, he is likely to see his duties curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

After the completion of a national search, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is pleased to announce the hiring of Alexander Gonzalez (below, in a photo by Robb McCormick) as the new assistant director of bands.

Gonzalez will conduct the Tuesday Night University Band, assist the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, direct the Men’s Hockey Band, and teach courses in conducting.

Gonzalez comes to Wisconsin after studying conducting at Ohio State University as a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate, where he worked with all concert ensembles and the marching band. Alongside his studies, he was the director of the Professional School Orchestra and taught conducting at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music.

“We are thrilled to welcome Alexander and his wife Haley to the University of Wisconsin Marching Band family,” said Associate Director of Bands Corey Pompey (below). “Alexander is a supremely gifted musician and pedagogue whose role is integral to the success of our band program. He is thoughtful, engaging and direct. Our students will benefit in immeasurable ways from what he has to offer.”

Prior to his studies in Ohio, Gonzalez was a public school educator in Colorado and Florida, where he taught an array of courses at middle school and high school levels.

While participating in his Master’s degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was the director of the Middleton High School Symphony Orchestra’s Wind Octet and worked in education and community outreach with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Alexander Gonzalez conducting the UW-Madison’s University Band in Michael J. Miller’s “Tribute for Band” in Mills Hall in 2014.)

“I am beyond excited to return to a place I consider home,” said Gonzalez (below). “The bands at UW-Madison were integral in forming the educator I am today. And I am equally excited to create a musical environment where present and future students can feel as loved, challenged and respected as I did.”

Gonzalez holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Florida and is an active member in the National Association for Music Education, the College Band Directors National Association, the National Band Association, Phi Mu Alpha, Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma.

“Professor Gonzalez brings with him a wealth of knowledge from his background in teaching music at the public school and college levels,” said Director of Bands Scott Teeple  (below). “He is an extraordinary musician, pedagogue and individual. Alexander’s contributions to the UW Band program and the Mead Witter School of Music will deepen the musical experiences of our students. We consider ourselves fortunate to have him as a member of our team.”

 


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Classical music: This Friday at noon, technology meets Beethoven when UW-Madison pianist Kangwoo Jin plays a FREE concerto performance

March 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale — tomorrow, March 6 — at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features an unusual concert in which classical music meets high technology.

Kangwoo Jin (below, in a photo by Steve Apps for the Wisconsin State Journal), a gifted and prize-winning pianist from South Korea, will perform the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

But instead of a second piano or a full orchestra, Jin will be accompanied by a newly developed interactive app that adjusts to Jin and allows him to play his solo part flexibly with a real orchestra accompaniment that has been recorded minus the piano part.

Jin is studying for his doctorate with UW Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. He will graduate this May.

Next week Jin — who has won the UW-Madison Concerto and Beethoven Competitions and who teaches at Farley’s House of Pianos, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the UW Continuing Education program– will open and close the UW-River Falls Piano Festival with two performances of the same Beethoven concerto with the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra

Jin suffers from hemophilia and has to be careful about injuring himself from over-practicing and over-playing. He has a fascinating and inspiring personal story to tell. Here is a link to a story about him in the Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/uw-pianist-shares-musical-gift-despite-health-challenge/article_fdba6f0f-9245-5816-a97c-c4f3a6e2d0ed.html

You can follow his Facebook page. And here is a link to Jin’s own website, which has more biographical information and videos: https://www.pianistkangwoojin.com


Jin says that, in addition to the two concerto movements, he will also play several short pieces:  “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy; the “Raindrop” Prelude by Chopin; and two song transcriptions by Franz Liszt — Schubert’s “Litany” and Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication).

The orchestral accompaniment for the Beethoven concerto is performed by MusAcc — an iPad app. It is an app that can customize and manipulate the audio, much like an actual instrument, in real time.  Think of it as an orchestra in a box that you can use anywhere.

Jin explains the reasons for his FUS concert, which starts at NOON (not 12:15 p.m., as it used to be) and goes to about 1 p.m.:

“Playing a concerto is not possible in that venue, so I am using a recorded file for the orchestra part,” Jin says. “My friend Yupeng Gu, who developed this audio controlling device, will conduct and control the pacing of the recording so that the sound synchronizes with my playing. It is quite incredible and will be a very interesting concert.”

“I hope this breaks the barrier of having to have a big venue and other difficulties for performing concertos, and lets local people enjoy a more accessible and diverse repertoire,” he says. “If people like it, I would like to play the whole concerto and maybe more concertos — hopefully, all five Beethoven piano concertos — this way. This is something I have not tried before, so I am excited about it.”

“People have much easier access to solo performances, but not to concertos due to many limitations,” Jin adds. “So I expect them to have a novel experience with this concert.”

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a similar performance, done with the same device, featuring a different pianist playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15.

 


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Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: The Karp family turns in a memorable and moving 40th annual Labor Day concert that also took listeners back in time

September 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you missed the free 40th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert on Tuesday night in Mills Hall, you missed more than music. You missed the kind of event that makes for long and precious memories.

Sure, you can nitpick the program and the performers, who also included daughter-in-law violist Katrin Talbot (below right) and guest violinist Suzanne Beia (below left), who performs with the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You could ask, for example, which cello transcription worked better – the Violin Sonatina, Op. 100, by Dvorak or the Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96, by Beethoven. (The Ear votes for the Dvorak.)

And you could also ask which performer stood out the most. (The Ear thinks that is the great-grandmother and matriarch pianist Frances Karp playing in a Mozart piano quartet. At 90, Frances still possesses beautiful tone, the right volume and balance, and the necessary technical chops. They say there is nowhere to hide in Mozart, but Frances Karp did need any place to hide. Her Mozart was, simply, sublime.)

But, in the end, those kinds of questions and critiques really seem beside the bigger point.

What mattered most was the sheer enjoyment of hearing a family perform live some wonderful music by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Schumann (the passionate Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, Op. 70, played by Lynn Harrell in the YouTube video at the bottom).

And what mattered more as The Ear thought about it was the kind of time travel the concert involved.

There were two kinds, really.

One had to do with having watched the various performing Karps – clearly Madison’s First Family of Music – over four decades. It was touching to realize that The Ear has seen cellist Parry Karp, to take one example, evolve from son to husband to father to grandfather. And through it all, the music remained.

In today’s culture of short attention spans, that kind of constancy and persistence — through the inevitable ups and downs of 40 years — is something to celebrate, admire and cherish.

Time travel happened in another way too.

The Ear first watched Frances Karp accompany her son Parry (below top), then watched son Christopher Karp accompany his older brother Parry (below bottom). And it called to mind the days when – before radio or recordings – families made music together in their homes.

Historically, that’s how many great composers and much great music got started. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn played piano duets with their gifted sisters, Nannerl and Fanny, respectively. Jean Sibelius played duets with his sister. And there were surely many more. Hausmusik, or “house music,” played a vital role.

And this is how it felt at the traditional Karp family concert. We felt invited into a loving, close and gifted musical family who were performing as much for each other as for the audience.

We could use more of that.

The musical and the familial mixed so beautifully, so convincingly, that all one can say after the event is “Thank you” with the ardent wish to hear them again next year.


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Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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