The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and 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.

By John W. Barker

The early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir celebrates 20 years with a retrospective concert and alumni singers this Saturday night

April 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a retrospective concert that includes alumni.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features favorite works from the choir’s history.

Founding conductor Gary McKercher (below top) will join current artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below bottom) – who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — to lead the choir in this special performance.

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Familiar composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Joseph Haydn share billing with Jean Belmont Ford (below), whose Sand County, a setting of Aldo Leopold’s words, will be performed.

Also on the program are a set of pieces by Howard Helvey (below top) that the WCC commissioned in 2002, and the U.S. premiere of Utyos by longtime WCC member Albrecht Gaub (below bottom).

Alumni of the choir will participate as guest singers in the final two works on the program: Haydn’s humorous Eloquence; and Gregg Smith’s serene Now I Walk in Beauty, which is based on a Navajo prayer and can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. 

Immediately following the performance, audience members are invited to join the singers for cake and refreshments to celebrate this milestone in the history of one of Madison’s premiere music ensembles.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres of commissioned works.

Artistic director Gehrenbeck has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance at are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets are also available in Madison from Orange Tree Imports, all three Willy Street Co-op locations, and from members of the choir. Tickets at the door will be available for $20 for adults and $10 for students.


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Classical music: Here are short takes about some chamber music, orchestral music and choral music concerts for this week, starting TODAY

April 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is another very busy week in Madison for classical music. Here are some short takes about various concerts, starting today and running through the week.

TODAY

Today — Sunday, April 7 — at 12:30 p.m., longtime chamber music partners UW-Madison cellist Parry Karp and UW-Oshkosh pianist Eli Kalman (below) will perform a FREE all-French recital at the Chazen Museum of Art in Brittingham Gallery 3. The concert  is part of the regular monthly series Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.

The concert will also be STREAMED LIVE starting at 12:30 p.m.

For a streaming portal and details about the program, go to:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen31/

TUESDAY

On Tuesday night, April 9, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, students in the UW-Madison Opera Workshop class perform a variety of scenes from opera and musical theater, staged and with piano accompaniment.

Sorry, but there are no details available about the composers, opera or scenes.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10

On Wednesday night, April 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street, the largely amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform.

The program, under guest conductor Kyle Knox, features the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Ludwig van Beethoven and “The Wand of Youth” Suites by Sir Edward Elgar. (You can hear the opening of the Beethoven symphony in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium opens at 7 p.m.

A meet-and-greet reception follows the concert.

Tickets are $15 for the general public. Admission is FREE to students.

For more information, including how to purchase tickets in advance and how to support the orchestra, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/concert_information

FRIDAY

On Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Chorale will perform a FREE concert under conductor Bruce Gladstone.

Sorry, no details are available about the program.

SATURDAY

On Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, a FREE concert by UW-Madison Combined Choirs will be performed. The event features the Masters Singers, the University Chorus and the Women’s Chorus (below).

Sorry, there are no details available about the program.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 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 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

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: Music from Schubert’s last year of life is the focus of this year’s UW-Madison’s Schubertiade this Sunday afternoon when a world-famous Schubert scholar will share her insights

January 25, 2019
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NEWS UPDATE: The UW-Madison is offering FREE ADMISSION to Sunday afternoon’s Schubertiade, discussed below, to furloughed federal workers, who just have to show their federal identification to an usher.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s sixth annual Schubertiade – a re-creation of the historical and informal celebration of his music that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) used to hold with friends – will take place this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The focus this year is the music composed in the last year of Schubert’s life, before his death at 31.

A schedule of events and information about tickets are below.

This Schubertiade will feature a world-famous Schubert scholar. Susan Youens, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame, has one of the most impressive musicology resumes in the world, and will share her insights about the late style of Franz Schubert (below) in her pre-concert lecture.

Youens has won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She has published eight books, hundreds of articles, essays and chapters, and lectured all over the world.

“Dr. Youens (below) will explore the rich relationship of Schubert’s music to the poems he chose to set and the emergence of new directions in Schubert’s style,” says co-organizer William Lutes. “The influence of Beethoven had loomed large throughout Schubert’s music, and in the year following Beethoven’s death, the 31-year-old composer wrote works of homage to this great master, as he saw his own music becoming more widely recognized, published and performed.”

Highlights of the Schubertiade will be a complete performance of Schubert’s 14 final songs, published after his death as Schwanengesang, or “Swan Songs” — among the composer’s richest and most forward-looking works. (You can hear the famous “Serenade” from “Swan Songs” sung by Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Also on the program are the humorous and risqué Refrain-Lieder; the slow movement of the great Piano Trio in E-flat major; the enchanting Rondo in A major for piano four-hands; and the beautiful song Auf den Strom for voice, horn and piano, composed for a concert commemorating the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, and filled with subtly haunting references to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

In addition to pianists and singers Martha Fischer and William Lutes (below), guest performers will include voice faculty members Mimmi Fulmer, Julia Rottmayer and Paul Rowe, voice students Sarah Brailey, Wesley Dunnagan, and Benjamin Hopkins, graduate hornist Joanna Schulz, and guest singer Cheryl Bensman-Rowe.

Also participating is the Perlman Trio (Mercedes Cullen, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; and Kangwoo Jin, piano).

The School of Music also thanks donors Ann Boyer and Kato Perlman for their longtime support of the Schubertiades, the Perlman Trio and other musicians and events.

2019 SCHUBERTIADE SCHEDULE

Pre-concert lecture: 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Morphy Hall. (Free.)

Concert: 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Mills Hall. (Ticketed.)

Post-concert reception, included with ticket purchase: Sunday, Jan. 27, at the nearby University Club, 5:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $17 for adults, $7 for all age students/children; free to music majors, faculty and staff. To avoid long lines, we suggest arriving 30 minutes early or buying tickets ahead of time, either in person or online. Please see the link below.

Purchase options (online, by telephone and in person) here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

To buy tickets directly online, click here.


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Andrew Sewell launches his own website

January 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just two weeks before he mounts the podium on Friday, Jan. 25, for the first Masterworks Concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this season, maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has launched his own website.

Sewell, who was born in New Zealand and became a naturalized American citizen, is the music director and conductor of the WCO, and is also now in his second season as music director and conductor of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California. Plus, he has many guest appearances, from London to Hong Kong, and numerous awards to his credit. (You can hear an interview with Sewell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The homepage of his new website, which features becoming black-and-white photos of Sewell, looks deceptively simple to navigate.

But there is much more than is apparent at first to learn there.

Under BIO you can read about his life in detail and also listen and watch archival videos of him conducting the Wichita and the San Luis Obispo orchestras in major works by Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms, along with critical praise for his performances and programming.

Under SCHEDULE, you see concert dates and soloists but no programs — at first. But if you click on the yellow words for PURCHASE TICKETS and either MASTERWORKS or CONCERT, you will be directed to full information about all the concerts by both of the orchestras he heads.

And by clicking on GALLERY you will find a generous montage of color photos, both serious and playful, of the friendly and talented Sewell at work and at ease.

Here is a link to the website:

https://www.andrewsewell.net/?fbclid=IwAR3zaRVX5psZMfYQNBW2XKIj6AvgY5fiVMQXZw-yOALDQDmZTvBElX6U3us

The Ear finds this a useful and appealing tool to learn more about a Madison maestro whose achievements have consistently stood out for almost 20 years and have altered the landscape of local music-making for the better.

The handsome new website is a job well done, and is well worth your time to check out, bookmark and use regularly.

Bravo, maestro!


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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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: This Saturday night brings concerts by the Festival Choir of Madison and a harpsichord rededication recital by Trevor Stephenson

November 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received announcements for the following two events that will place on Saturday night:

FESTIVAL CHOIR OF MADISON

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will present the first concert of the season — “Angels and Demons” — on this Saturday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, in Madison.

The choir and artistic director, Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below), will take listeners on a Dante-inspired journey — from the Inferno in “The Divine Comedy” through Purgatory all the way to Paradise — as interpreted by composers Karl Jenkins, Zdenek Lukas, Gyorgy Orban, Alfred Schnittke, Joseph Rheinberger, Rodion Schedrin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Marteen Spruijt. (Sorry, but there has been no word on specific works to be performed.)

Guest pianist Kyle Johnson, organist Ted Reinke, percussionist James McKenzie and a string ensemble will accompany the choir throughout the journey.

Concert admission, with general seating, is $10 for students, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for adults, with tickets available at the door the day of the concert. Tickets can also be purchased online at: https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2018/11/3/angels-and-demons

The Festival Choir of Madison is an auditioned, mixed-voice volunteer choir of over 50 experienced singers. It performs thematic concerts of artistically challenging choral music from around the world for listeners who enjoy traditional, modern and eclectic works, and for singers who enjoy developing their talents with others.

To learn more about the organization and see upcoming concerts, go to: www.festivalchoirmadison.org

HARPSICHORD AT IMMANUEL LUTHERAN CHURCH

On this Saturday night, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, there will be a harpsichord rededication celebration and concert.

The appearance and musicality of this renovated double-mansuel. French 18th-century instrument at Immanuel Lutheran have recently been restored and upgraded under the exceptional guidance and expertise of Trevor Stephenson (below bottom), artistic director and founder of the Madison Bach Musicians.

Immanuel is excited to share the instrument (below) with the Madison community by presenting Stephenson in a rededication harpsichord concert. (Composers on the program include Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. No program of specific works has been provided.)

A pre-concert interactive lecture discussing the instrument and rebuilding process will precede the concert starting at 6:30 p.m.

A freewill offering is appreciated at the concert.

A brief reception will follow, and all are welcome.


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 2018
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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 FM. 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

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 2018
2 Comments

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 photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


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