The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine solos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program

October 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) makes her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor.

The concert by the orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) opens with Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday night, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $19-$95. See below for details.

“There will be great discoveries in our all-Russian concert, starting with the MSO debut of virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a big, bold and beautiful work in its MSO premiere,” said MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). Lieutenant Kijé is sure to delight you with its wonderful melodies and infectious rhythms. Shostakovich has become a favorite with our audiences, and his ninth symphony is delightfully upbeat.”

Lieutenant Kijé is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia. The story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934, with music by Sergei Prokofiev (below). The plot is a satire on bureaucracy and is often parodied in fictional works making fun of bureaucracies, most famously in the form of the M*A*S*H television episode “Tuttle,” featuring a fictional captain of similar provenance. (You can hear the popular “Troika” episode in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A myriad of the themes in Violin Concerto in D minor are evocative of the native Armenia of Aram Khachaturian (below). Although the folk melodies aren’t played explicitly, one can hear the Armenian roots through the oriental essence of the scales and the rhythmic range of the featured dances. The piece won the Stalin Prize in 1941, becoming one of Khachaturian’s favorites.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is entirely unlike his other symphonies. In fact, it completely disregards the expectations for its programmatic elements. Shostakovich’s prior two symphonies are thematically tied to the ongoing war, therefore the public presumed that the ninth symphony would be a grand culmination to Stalin and mark the end of World War II. Instead, the composer (below) produced a short, neo-classical work that generated an abundance of controversy.

ABOUT RACHEL BARTON PINE

In both art and life, violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) – who has performed in Madison before with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — has an extraordinary ability to connect with people.

Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classic and contemporary works, her performances combine her innate gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. She plays with passion and conviction, thrilling audiences worldwide with her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

A prolific recording artist, she has also championed the works of female composers and African-American composers.

Pine was also recently named the recipient of the Cedille Records Musical Partnership Award for her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. The Foundation was recognized as an organization that has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the classical music community in Chicago. Cedille noted the Foundation’s “support of the Chicago musical community’s most valuable asset — its musicians and composers.”

Pine was presented with the award by U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose son, Jim Ginsburg, founded Cedille Records. Pine began her Foundation in 2001 to provide instruments and instruction to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

You can read the Artist Story online about how Rachel Barton Pine overcame severe injuries and her own personal adversity to achieve her goals: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20-artist-story-rachel-barton-pine-overcomes-adversity/

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, retired MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msooct19programnotes.

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


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Classical music: Autumn arrives today. The Ear thinks Richard Strauss’ poignant orchestral song “September” is perfect for greeting Fall. What music would you choose?

September 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall officially arrives today.

The autumnal equinox takes place at 2:50 a.m. CST.

If you listen to Wisconsin Public Radio, it’s a certainty that you will hear music appropriate to the season. WPR does these tie-ins very well and very reliably — even during a pledge drive.

At the top of the list will probably be the “Autumn” section of three violin concertos from the ever popular “The Four Seasons” by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

But there are lots of others, including late songs, piano sonatas and chamber music by Franz Schubert; slow movements from symphonies by Gustav Mahler; and many of the “autumnal” late works by Johannes Brahms, especially the short piano pieces and chamber music such as the Clarinet Trio, Clarinet Quintet and the two sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with more than two hours of autumn music. You can check out the composers and the pieces, some of which might be new to you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fddGrDV2gw

And if you want less music with some unusual choices, complete with individual performances, try this much shorter compilation:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/best-classical-music-inspired-autumn

Yet this time of year, when the days end earlier and the mornings dawn later, one work in particular gets to The Ear: It is “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss (below), one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.

The second of the four songs is “September” and fits the bill very nicely.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by Renée Fleming, who will perform a recital next spring in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. She is accompanied by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

Here are the lyrics of the poem, in which summertime is the protagonist, by Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse:

The garden is in mourning

Cool rain seeps into the flowers.

Summertime shudders,

quietly awaiting his end.

 

Golden leaf after leaf falls

from the tall acacia tree.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,

at his dying dream of a garden.

 

For just a while he tarries

beside the roses, yearning for repose.

Slowly he closes

his weary eyes.

Is the Ear the only person who wishes that the Madison Symphony Orchestra and maestro John DeMain, who has a gift for finding great young voices, would perform Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” some autumn?

With the right vocal soloist it could make for a memorable season-opening concert.

What music do you identity with the fall season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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

August 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you react to the accusations?

What do you believe should happen to Domingo?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) will give two FREE afternoon performances this Saturday and Sunday with the world premiere of a socially relevant piece by local composer Lawren Brianna Ware

August 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below) will present its ninth season this weekend, performing two free afternoon concerts.

Co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below left) and concertmaster Thalia Coombs (below back), the orchestra will perform music of Haydn, Wagner and Grieg, plus a commissioned work from local composer Lawren Brianna Ware.

Performances are Saturday, Aug. 3, at noon on the “Grace Presents” concert series at Grace Episcopal Church, located downtown at 116 West Washington Avenue on the Capitol Square; and on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 12:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Lobby of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art, as part of “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.”

(Please note that Sunday’s concert is NOT in the Brittingham Gallery III due to space constraints.) Sunday’s performance will be live-streamed on the Chazen website. Here is a link to the portal for streaming: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen7/

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Utevsky and Coombs offer the following comments about the program:

We’re excited to be working with Lawren Brianna Ware (below) on a new work she composed for us, Un sueño aplazado (A Dream Deferred – a quote from the African-American poet Langston Hughes), which chronicles the emotional trajectory of a migrant’s journey from Central America to the United States.

Our two high school Conducting Apprentices, Luke Whittingham (below top) and Quinn Wilson (below bottom) will each conduct one performance of a movement from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Whittingham conducts on Saturday and Wilson does so on Sunday.

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is a luxurious tone poem for small orchestra that he composed as a love letter to his wife Cosima, first performed on the staircase of their villa in Switzerland on her birthday. Often chamber orchestras don’t get the chance to dig into the great German Romantic repertoire, but this gem is a notable — and unforgettably beautiful — exception. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We conclude our program with Franz Joseph Haydn’s final symphony, No. 104. Nicknamed the “London,” it is one of 12 symphonies he wrote for performances there late in his career, and it remains one of his finest essays in symphonic form.

MAYCO is made possible by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

For more information about the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, go to www.mayco.org or call (608) 514-5537.


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society closes its 28th season this weekend by honoring three guest artists. Plus, here are all the winners of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition

June 28, 2019
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ALERT: The Ear has been following two competitors in the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia who have local ties. (The only American to win Gold was cellist Zlatomir Fung.) The final results are in: trumpet player Ansel Norris took fifth place and received an artist’s diploma; pianist Kenneth Broberg shared the third prize with two other winners. For a complete list of winners in all the categories — piano, violin, cello, voice, brass and woodwinds — go to this page: https://tch16.com/en/news/

You can also watch and listen to, via live streaming, the two Gala Concerts for the winners today at 11 a.m. and on Saturday at 1 a.m. Valery Gergiev will conduct both. Go to https://tch16.medici.tv

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will close out its 28th annual summer chamber music season with concerts in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green.

Judging by the first two weekends of concerts, The Ear expects it to be a memorable conclusion of the season with the punning theme of “Name Dropping.”

Here is the announcement he received.

“Our third week of concerts celebrates three great musicians, all of whom are audience favorites: cellist couple Anthony (“Tony”) Ross and Beth Rapier; and firebrand violinist Carmit Zori.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” is a program centered around cello duets. Rapier and Ross (below), principal and co-principal cellists with the Minnesota Orchestra, start the program with George Frideric Handel’s gorgeous Sonata in G minor for two cellos and piano. (You can hear the Handel sonata, payed by Amit Peled in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They both display crazy virtuosity in Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in B-flat Major for flute, violin, viola and two cellos.

The first half ends with Gian Carlo Menotti’s Suite for two cellos and piano, a work that they have performed to acclaim around the world.

The second half of the program is given over to one of Brahms’ greatest works, the Sextet in G Major, Op. 36, for two violins, two violas and two cellos.

Ross and Rapier are joined by violinists Carmit Zori and Leanne League (assistant concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) and violists Toby Appel (below, a faculty member at the Juilliard School who plays in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) and Katrin Talbot (a Madisonian who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) in this spectacular piece.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin on Sunday, June 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Firebrand violinist Carmit Zori (below), founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society in New York City, will sizzle her way through the second program, entitled “The Legend of Zori.”

The program will open with Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in G Major for violin and piano. Viaje, by living Chinese composer Zhou Tian, is a fun and exciting new piece featuring flute and string quartet.

Zori will bring the program home with the torridly passionate Piano Quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck (below), a work written while Franck was in the throes of a love affair with one of his young students.

“The Legend of Zori” will be performed at The Playhouse at the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, on Sunday, June 30, at 6:30 p.m.

Venue Locations: the Stoughton Opera House is at 381 East Main Street; the Overture Center in Madison is at 201 State Street; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Hillside Theater in on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Single admission tickets start are $43 and $49. Student tickets are always $10. All single tickets must now be purchased from Overture Center for the Arts, www.overturecenter.org or (608) 258-4141 (additional fees apply) or at the box office. Tickets are available at the door at all locations.

You can also enjoy a pre-ordered picnic at the Hillside Theater made with love from Pasture and Plenty, using ingredients from local farmers and producers. They are available for pick up at the Hillside Theater after the 2:30 p.m. concert or before the 6:30 p.m. concert, for $18.

Spread a blanket on the beautiful Hillside Theater grounds or eat in the Taliesin Architecture School Dining Room, which will be open exclusively to BDDS concert-goers.

Choose from Green Goddess Chicken Salad, Market Veggie Quiche with Greens, or Hearty Greens and Grains with Seasonal Veggie Bowl (gluten-free/vegan). Seasonal sweet treat and beverage included. See the BDDS order form or call BDDS at 608 255-9866.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society again brings its surefire summery approach to serious classical chamber music when it starts its 28th annual series this weekend

June 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just the calendar that makes the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society the official start of the increasingly busy summer classical musical season in Madison.

The real reason is that the summer chamber music series, about to start its 28th annual summer this Friday night, June 14, is downright summery in its approach.

Say “summer,” and you think of lightness, of fun, of playfulness. And those are the very same qualities – along with serious, first-rate performances of great music by outstanding musicians – that BDDS brings to its six programs spread out in 12 concerts over three weekends and three venues during the month of June.

By now both the performers (below, in a photo by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS) and the audiences know that the formula works, however finely tuned or slightly changed it is from one summer to the next.

WHAT’S THE SAME

This year much remains.

There are still door prizes, spoken introductions and stories, mystery guests and a colorful art installation by UW-Madison designer Carolyn Kallenborn.

The titles of the six programs for 12 concerts over three weekends still have groan-inducing puns — “Name Dropping” in the theme for this summer — that are based on the musicians’ names like “Founteneau of Youth” after the San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below top) and “Quadruple Axel” after the Montreal-based violin virtuoso Axel Strauss (below bottom).

There are still the usual venues: the Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top); the Stoughton Opera House (below middle); and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green.

There are still the many distinguished and accomplished musicians among the many imported guest artists and the many local musicians, including the co-founders and co-artistic directors flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below). The Ear can’t recall ever hearing a bad BDDS performance, even of music he didn’t like.

And there is a mix of older well-known and classic repertoire along with newer and neglected composers and works.

WHAT’S NEW

But some things are different too.

The first concert this Friday will have a post-concert reception with free champagne and dessert to celebrate the 28th season.

This summer, unlike recent ones, there is no vocal music. All music is instrumental.

At both Stoughton and Spring Green, you can get food. Go to the home website for details.

Especially new and noteworthy is that the Russian virtuoso accordion player Stas Venglevski (below), from Milwaukee, will also perform on programs. Venglevski performs on the bayan, a Russian-style accordion noted for its deep bass sound and range and purity of tone.

Venglevski will be featured in works that range from polkas and heart-on-the-sleeve tangos by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; down-and-dirty original works by Russian master Tatyana Sergeyeva and arrangements of favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and others.

This Wednesday night, June 12, from 7 to 9 p.m., Venglevski and Jutt will perform “Bayan-o-rama” at the Arts and Literature Lab, 2021 Winnebago Street. Tickets are $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served.

Here is a summary of the first weekend:

WEEK ONE

The elegance, charm, and finesse of French cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau is displayed in a program called “Fonteneau of Youth.”

It includes music written by great composers in their youth, including the ravishing Elegy for cello and piano of French composer Gabriel Fauré; the rhythmically exciting Trio for flute, cello and piano of living American composer Ned Rorem; and the astonishing D’un soir triste (One Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning), both for piano trio, of 21-year old Lili Boulanger (below), who was the Prix de Rome-winning composer sister of famed teacher Nadia Boulanger and who died very young. (You can hear both pieces by Lili Boulanger in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The great Franz Joseph Haydn—always the most youthful of composers, even into his late years—is represented by the masterful Piano Trio no. 28 in E major, in honor of BDDS’ 28th season.

“Fonteneau of Youth” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on this Friday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m. A free champagne and dessert reception will be held following the performance to celebrate the 28th season opener. It will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater on Sunday, June 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Audience favorite Axel Strauss—not just a virtuoso violinist, but a virtuoso musician and artist of the highest distinction—will brave gravity-defying musical heights in “Quadruple Axel.” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Trio Sonata in D minor for violin, flute, cello and piano starts the program on an elegant note. Johannes Brahms’ fiery Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, raises the temperature significantly. And all sorts of hijinks are on display in Maurice Ravel’s extraordinary and ravishing Sonata for Violin and Piano.

“Quadruple Axel” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 16, at 6:30 p.m.

For more information about the full BDDS season and how to purchase tickets ($43 and $49), go to: https://bachdancing.org


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

June 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other individuals and groups join forces to celebrate John DeMain’s 25th season with Mahler’s monumental “Symphony of a Thousand”

April 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

By any standard, it is epic music.

The stage in Overture Hall will have more than 500 participants on it this coming weekend when the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) partners with the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs, the UW–Madison Choral Union and eight critically acclaimed vocal soloists to bring a performance of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 — or “Symphony of a Thousand.”

For the first time since 2005, MSO music director and conductor John DeMain will conduct one of the largest undertakings in the classical music repertoire as the final concert marking his Silver Anniversary Season.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday night, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, May 4, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, May 5, at 2:30 p.m.

Information about tickets ($18-$93) is below.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson): “I have spent 25 years with this orchestra and chorus. In that time, our collaboration on Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8 in 2005 stands out as perhaps the most memorable. I feel a magnetic affinity with Mahler, and began my career 25 years ago with his first symphony. I am honored and moved to conduct this work and feel it is the perfect conclusion to my 25th season.”

Composed in December 1906, Symphony No. 8 is the last work by Mahler (below) to be premiered in his lifetime. It is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire, and because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces, it is frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand.” (Below is a photo of the final rehearsal for the world premiere performance in Munich in 1910.)

The structure of the work is unconventional; instead of the normal framework of several movements, the piece is in two parts.

Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.

The two parts are unified by a common idea: redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.

Symphony No. 8 is revered as one of the greatest achievements of classical concert repertoire and expresses the composer’s confidence in the eternal human spirit. (You can hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in the famous finale of the Symphony No. 8 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

ABOUT THE PERFORMERS

The distinguished solo singers are: soprano Alexandra LoBianco; soprano Emily Birsan (below), who just last weekend sang the title role in the Madison Opera’s production of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka”; soprano Emily Pogorelc; mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic; mezzo-soprano Julie Miller; tenor Clay Hilley; baritone Michael Redding; and bass-baritone Morris Robinson.

For photos and impressive biographical information about the soloists, go to:

https://madisonsymphony.org/event/symphony-of-a-thousand/

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on Feb. 23, 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since.

The chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent under the direction of Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who is the director of Choral Activities at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Inclusive of members of all skill levels, the Madison Youth Choirs (below), Michael Ross director, incorporate singers from ages 7-18 into their orchestration.

The choirs aim to introduce youths interested in musical performance to collaborative forms of self-confidence and responsibility in the atmosphere of musical training. Randal Swiggum is conducting rehearsals preparing members of the choir for the MSO’s May Symphony of a Thousand concerts.

With 150 members, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) fuses university and non-university members. Under the direction of Beverly Taylor, former associate conductor of the MSO who also teaches at the UW-Madison, the Choral Union is another testament to the musical outreach in the Madison arts.

CONCERT, TICKET and EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by James Gill) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket-holders.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msomay19programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/symphony-of-a-thousandthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.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 $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 19-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Subscriptions for the 2019-2020 season are available now. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20

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

Major funding provided by NBC15, Larry and Jan Phelps, Diane Ballweg, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Johnson Financial Group, and University Research Park. Additional funding provided by DeWitt LLP, Kennedy Gilchrist and Heidi Wilde, Thomas E. Terry, Fred A. Wileman, Helen L. Wineke, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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