The Well-Tempered Ear

Four local classical musicians perform Black women composers in a virtual holiday concert to benefit the health of Black women

December 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Ensemble (WE) Project, a quartet of local classical musicians, has announced that it will host a holiday concert to support Dane County-based non-profit, the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW, below).

The concert will be the first in a series of performances to benefit local and international organizations working for social justice and human interest. 

This unique effort is rooted in the quartet’s desire to not only delve deeply into chamber music repertoire, but also to address some of the many pressing social justice issues of our time. 

This recorded, virtual YouTube concert will be available at https://wisconsinensembleproject.com from 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 25, through 6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 3. — times are CST — where contributions will be accepted via PayPal.

Viewers will hear the story and see the face of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness woven through quality chamber music by Black women composers performed by WE Project artists violinists Leanne League and Mary Theodore (below ends, in a photo by Katrin Talbot); violist Christopher Dozoryst (second from right); and cellist Karl Lavine. The four play together in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

Pieces they will perform include Strum (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) and Voodoo Dolls by Jessie Montgomery (below top, in a photo by Jiyang Chen); Modes by Dorothy Rudd Moore (below center); and String Quartet in G Major by Florence Price (below bottom).

“This production offers viewers a meaningful program which leads to direct impact,” says WE Project member Mary Theodore who has been working with Foundation staff to coordinate the benefit over the last few weeks.

”We felt strongly about the work of the Foundation as we learned more about their mission to eliminate the startling health and economic disparities Black women face in our community,” adds Theodore. “When you donate and tune in to our concert, you will be helping to cover basic production costs and getting funds directly into the hands of this very worthy organization”. 

Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness CEO Lisa Peyton-Caire (below), who launched the Black women’s health advocacy organization in 2012, says the concert is a beautiful example of how community and organizations can partner to drive social change together. 

“We are elated that WE Project chose us as their first benefit recipient, and that our mission and work to transform Black women’s health in Wisconsin resonated with them,” said Peyton-Caire. “We know that ultimately it takes all of our effort to solve the inequities in our community, and this benefit concert is a beautiful example of the loving and creative ways we can join forces to do this.” 

To learn more about the concert, visit https://wisconsinensembleproject.com, where you can contribute via PayPal anytime beginning now through Jan. 3.

To listen to a recent morning coffee chat between members of the two organizations, go to: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=431169757916539&ref=watch_permalink. Click on individual profiles to hear them.

To learn more about The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, visit https://ffbww.org


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Library of Congress streams UW pianist Christopher Taylor’s online Liszt-Beethoven symphony recital for free this Thursday night

December 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday night, Dec. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m. CST, University of Wisconsin-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will close the celebration of the Beethoven Year, marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, at the Library of Congress. After the concert’s premiere, it will stay posted online.

For the past several years, Taylor has been performing the solo piano transcriptions by Franz Liszt of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies both in Russia and at the UW-Madison. 

Here is more from the website of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

“It takes extraordinary skill as an orchestrator to condense an entire symphony by Beethoven (below top) into a version for a solo instrument, but that is just what Franz Liszt (below bottom) accomplished in his piano transcriptions. (You can hear a sample, along with a visual representation, of the Fifth Symphony transcription in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Hear virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor perform three of these transcendent symphony transcriptions, works he describes as a “new perspective on something familiar.” (The Ear, who has heard Taylor’s impressive performances of almost all nine symphonies, finds that comparing the two versions is like looking at the same photograph in color and then black-and-white. Color emphasizes details while black-and-white emphasizes structure. You hear new things by comparing the two.)

The performance was pre-recorded in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the Hamel Music Center.

The program is:

BEETHOVEN/LISZT

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

You can find more details at: https://loc.gov/concerts/christopher-taylor.html

You can Register on Eventbrite

Hailed by critics as “frighteningly talented” (The New York Times) and “a great pianist” (The Los Angeles Times), Taylor has distinguished himself throughout his career as an innovative musician with a diverse array of talents and interests.

He is known for a passionate advocacy of music written in the past 100 years — Messiaen, Ligeti and Bolcom figure prominently in his performances — but his repertoire spans four centuries and includes the complete Beethoven sonatas, the Liszt Transcendental Etudes, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and a multitude of other familiar masterworks.

Whatever the genre or era of the composition, Taylor brings to it an active imagination and intellect coupled with heartfelt intensity and grace.

Taylor has concertized around the globe, with international tours taking him to Russia, Western Europe, East Asia and the Caribbean. 

At home in the U.S. he has appeared with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, the Madison Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony. As a soloist he has performed in New York’s Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls, in Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Ravinia and Aspen festivals, and dozens of other venues.

In chamber music settings, he has collaborated with many eminent musicians, including Robert McDuffie and the Borromeo, Shanghai, Pro Arte, and Ying Quartets.

His recordings have featured works by Liszt, Messiaen and present-day Americans William Bolcom and Derek Bermel. 

Throughout his career, Taylor has become known for undertaking memorable and unusual projects.  Examples include: an upcoming tour in which he will perform, from memory, the complete transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies by Liszt; performances and lectures on the complete etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti; and a series of performances of the Goldberg Variations on the unique double-manual Steinway piano (below) in the collection of the University of Wisconsin.

Numerous awards have confirmed Taylor’s high standing in the musical world. He was named an American Pianists’ Association Fellow for 2000, before which he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1996 and the Bronze Medal in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In 1990 he took first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition, and also became one of the first recipients of the Irving Gilmore Young Artists’ Award.

Taylor lives in Middleton, Wis., with his wife and two daughters. He is a Steinway artist.

For more biographical information — including his piano teachers and his education as well as his interest in mathematics and engineering — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-concerts-from-the-library-of-congress/

 


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The Madison Bach Musicians will open its new season with a virtual online concert of Haydn and Mozart this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

October 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement, about a promising contrast-and-compare concert, from the Madison Bach Musicians:

The Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will start its 17th season this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3 and 4, with a virtual chamber music concert and livestream event featuring the irrepressibly joyous, witty and poised music of Classical-era masters Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The performances features period instruments and historically informed performance practices.

See details near the bottom about the schedules and how to buy tickets.

Performers are violinist Kangwon Kim and cellist James Waldo (on gut-strung period instruments), fortepianist Trevor Stephenson, and soprano soloist Morgan Balfour — winner of the 2019 Handel Aria Competition. (Below top is Kangwon Kim; below middle is James Waldo; and below bottom is Morgan Balfour.)

The broadcast will begin with a 30-minute pre-concert lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer) illuminating the program’s repertoire, the lives of Haydn and Mozart, and the aesthetic aims of the period instruments.

While most of the pieces on the program are buoyant and full of celebration, the concert will begin with a pensive and melancholy work commensurate with our current pandemic times.

Mozart composed the Sonata in E minor for violin and fortepiano in 1778 at the age of 22 while on tour in Paris. His mother, who was with him on the tour, became suddenly ill and died unexpectedly. This sonata is the only piece of instrumental music Mozart ever composed in the key of E minor, and its blend of gravitas, sparseness and tenderness is heartbreakingly poignant.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major, composed in 1788, shows him at his sunniest and most affable, with one brilliant and catchy tune after another suspended effortlessly — at least in Mozart’s hands! ― within the balance of Classical form.

The program’s first half ends with five of Mozart’s songs. Mozart truly loved the soprano voice, and he lavished some of his greatest writing upon it. The set includes perhaps his best-known song, Das Veilchen (The Violet)―which is also, oddly enough, Mozart’s only setting of a text by the German poet Goethe.

The second half of the concert is devoted to the music of Mozart’s near contemporary, Joseph Haydn, who was just 24 years older than Mozart.

Though the two composers came from very different musical and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Haydn (below) was lower working class, rural, and musical but not professionally trained.

Mozart (below) was urban, solid middle class, musically trained, sophisticated, and ambitious.

Both managed to carve out successful careers in the fertile musical culture of Vienna and its environs. They certainly knew each other and even made music together on occasion, playing in string quartets — with Haydn on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn composed two sets of English Canzonettas (songs) during his visits to England during the early 1790s.

The Mermaid, with its flirtatious beckoning, stretches the confines of the parlor setting (where this music was most likely performed) and suggests a cabaret environment. Fidelity, on the other hand, stays within the parlor style, emphasizing how the bond of devotion can overcome physical separation. Haydn brilliantly interweaves stormy, naturalistic episodes with declarations of unbending loyalty.

The concert will close with Haydn’s mercurial Piano Trio No. 27 in C major. Also composed during his London visits in the 1790s, this trio is the first of a set of three dedicated to the London-based virtuoso pianist Therese Bartolozzi. The Presto finale―with its unbridled high spirits―is a supreme example of Classical Era cheeky, theatrically conceived wit. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SCHEDULE AND TICKETS

As a result of public health guidelines in response to Covid-19 that do not allow for an in-person audience, we will livestream our concert from Grace Episcopal Church, downtown on Capitol Square, on Saturday evening for at-home viewing. (Below are Trevor Stephenson and Kangwon Kim rehearsing in masks at Stephenson’s home.)

The event will begin with a pre-concert talk by Trevor Stephenson at 7:30 p.m., and after the 8 p.m. concert, the musicians will remain on stage to answer questions submitted by our audience.

On Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. we will rebroadcast the Saturday evening recording and follow that with a live question-and-answer session with our musicians from their homes.

After purchasing tickets for $15 per household, you will be sent a link to access the performance. The recorded lecture and video will be available for up to 72 hours after they take place.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/oct-3-4-haydn-mozart/ or to: https://madison-bach-musicians.square.site/product/haydn-mozart-oct-3-4-livestream/54?cs=true

For information about the Madison Bach Musicians’ full season, go to: https://madisonbachmusicians.org/season-overview/

 


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Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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Classical music: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: In two FREE concerts on Sunday afternoon and evening, the UW Wind Ensemble celebrates Black History Month and the guest duo Bridge of Song celebrates Nordic song

February 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

On a weekend with a lot of live music, two FREE concerts also take place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., on Sunday afternoon and early Sunday evening. Details are below:

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

At 2 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below) will celebrate Black History Month with a FREE concert.

The conductor is director Scott Teeple (below).

Also participating is the Madison-based Mt. Zion Baptist Church Gospel Choir (below), with director Leotha Stanley.

The program is:

Adolphus Hailstork (below): “American Guernica” (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)
Armando Borolo: “Last Breaths”
DaSean Stokes, soloist
Aaron Copland: “A Lincoln Portrait”
Traditional/arr. Reynolds: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
Stephen Newby:  “When I See His Glorious Face/Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus”
Omar Thomas: “Of Our New Day Begun”

For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-7/

NORDIC SONG

Then at 6:30p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall, there is a FREE concert to promote Nordic song by Bridge of Song.

Bridge of Song is a voice and piano duo. It features soprano Kathleen Roland-Silverstein (below top) and pianist Collin Hansen (below bottom).

Songs will be performed in three languages — Swedish, Finnish and English. For a complete program of composers and works – unfortunately, with no translations of the foreign-language titles – as well as extended biographies of the performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/bridge-of-song/

 


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Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/a-smaller-piano-for-bigger-artistry/article_38b80090-be0f-5050-9862-32c3c36c6930.html


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Classical music: “Into the Woods” proved a complete, first-rate theatrical experience

February 26, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog  – attended two performances of “Into the Woods” at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and filed this review. (Photos are by Beau Meyer for the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.)

By Larry Wells

The University Theatre and University Opera’s recent joint production of “Into the Woods” was a feast for fans of Stephen Sondheim (below). It was a complete theatrical experience with excellent singing, a nuanced orchestral accompaniment, skilled acting and enchanting staging.

The nearly three-hour work is an amalgamation of several well-known fairy tales exploring themes such as parent-child relationships, loss of innocence, self-discovery, the consequences of wishes being fulfilled, and death – but all in an amusing, literate, fast-paced kaleidoscope of witty dialogue, catchy music and sophisticated lyrics.

The production employed an attractive, ever-changing set, designed by John Drescher, that was vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak.

Stage director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio) utilized the large cast and what had to be an equally large number of backstage crew members in a captivating succession of ensemble pieces and solo numbers. I was never aware of the passing of time. Not looking at my watch is my acid test of a production’s success.

Among the many standout performances, Bryanna Plaisir (below) as the Witch was comical in her delivery and quite amazing in the physicality of her performance. There were a number of times when she flew, and each time I was taken by surprise at her effortlessness. Her initial song, accompanied mostly by percussion, was mesmerizing.

There were two roles that were double cast: Elisheva Pront and Miranda Kettlewell (below) as the Cinderellas; and Meghan Stecker and Zoe Bockhorst as the two Little Red Riding Hoods.

Both Pront and Kettlewell possess excellent voices.

Stecker was the more girlish of the two Red Riding Hoods, whereas Bockhorst (below left) portrayed a slightly more canny character.  Both were very funny in their encounter with Cobi Tappa’s Wolf (below right).

Tappa is a physical actor whose tall lankiness conveyed the Wolf’s lupine nature flawlessly. He also portrayed the Steward, and I was completely captivated by his performance, as was the appreciative audience.

Joshua Kelly (below) was the narrator and also played the baker’s father.  His was a professional quality performance from beginning to end – enunciating so clearly that he was completely understandable throughout.

Jack was played by Christian Michael Brenny. His portrayal of a simple-minded boy was touching, and his singing was outstanding.

Emily Vandenberg (below left) as the wife of the baker (played by Michael Kelley, below right) was another outstanding performer – an excellent comic actress and an accomplished vocalist.

Mention must also be made of Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, Tanner Zocher  and Jacob Eliot Elfner. Their two duets, “Agony” and “Agony Reprise,” were enthusiastically received by the audience not only for their delivery but also for such lyrics as “…you know nothing of madness ‘til you’re climbing her hair…”.

Sondheim’s way with words continues to amaze me. In describing a decrepit cow, Jack’s mother gets to sing “…while her withers wither with her…”.  The Wolf gets to sing the line “…there’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal…”

Chad Hutchinson (below) conducted the orchestra in a finely shaded performance – never overpowering and always supportive.

There were many other excellent performances and memorable moments. Suffice it to say that altogether cast, crew, artistic and production staff created a show that I enjoyed on two consecutive evenings. In fact I was completely entranced both times.

Postscript: The first evening I sat in front of a person who coughed more or less continually the entire first act.  Mercifully she left at the intermission. Next to me was a woman who alternated between audibly clearing her throat and blowing her nose — when she wasn’t applying moisturizer to her hands — throughout the entire show. Stay home if you’re sick. And remember that you are not at home watching your television.  You are in a theater.


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Classical music education: The UW-Madison Pro Arte Quartet performs music by Edward Elgar with the Middleton High School Orchestra in a FREE concert this Thursday night

March 15, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison 900 University Bay Drive, features the ensemble New Muse with Danielle Breisach, flute; Peter Miliczky, violin; Joshua Dieringer, viola; Ben Bauer, cello; and Yana Avedyan, piano, in new music by Nathan Froebe, Benjamin Boyajian, and Jonathan Posthuma. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will travel west on Thursday – all the way to the suburb of Middleton.

That where the Pro Arte will perform Sir Edward Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro” with the Middleton High School Orchestra (below) under conductor Steve Kurr, who also conducts the Middleton Community Orchestra. (You can hear the Elgar piece in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The FREE and UNTICKETED concert is this Thursday night from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to the high school, 2100 Bristol Street.

Conductor Steve Kurr says this about the program:

“The rest of the program includes Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville,” the “Colonel Bogey March” and the “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” by Edvard Grieg.

“Also on the program are the three winners of this year’s Concerto-Aria competition: Marimbist Alex Warholic plays the first movement of the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; soprano Chloe Cole sings “V’adoro pupille” from the opera “Julius Caesar:” by George Frideric Handel; and violinist Rachael Lee performs the “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by Camille Saint-Saens.

“The concert begins with two works performed by the MHS Honors Wind Ensemble.

“The Elgar is such a great work, and underperformed. The Pro Arte musicians are such great inspirations to our high school musicians.”


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