The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Critic John W. Barker says The Ancora String Quartet opens its new season with a joyous and revelatory exploration of string trios with winds.

September 15, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the concert photos. 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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) opened its 2013-14 season with a concert Friday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street.

Not only was the venue unusual for the group, but so too was its configuration. First violinist Leanne League has chosen to take a leave of absence from the group this season, reducing the ensemble to a trio — Robin Ryan, violin, Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola, and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

And so, a necessity became an opportunity, Whitcomb recruited some of his fellow faculty colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to help the Ancora players design of program of what we might call the string trio-plus-one.

As demonstrated in the concert, the trio-plus-one could represent a lot of literature. The most common plus-one has been the piano — in a genre developed in the late 18th-century and continuing virtually to the present, yielding a magnificent literature of “piano quartets” in their own terms.

But the plus-one with the string trio (below) could be other instruments, notably winds, and a considerable literature for such combinations was developed at the same time, though its popularity diminished through the 19th-century.

Thus, this program offered three “quartets” in which the added instrument was, successively a clarinet, a flute and a bassoon.

string trio  violin, viola and cello

Given the comparatively stronger projection of each of these instruments, the texture tended to become that of a kind of concerto, with the three string instruments turning into a kind of mini-orchestra in support of the prominent “soloistic” writing for the plus-one.

Works of this kind were not concert pieces, in our terms, but were written and published in considerable quantities, for use in cultivated household parlors or elite salons. They were played by musicians who ranged from skilled amateurs to accomplished professionals. The works were not idle fluff, either, but ones carefully crafted and often posing considerable technical challenges.

That was clear in the opening work, one of particular substance, a Quartet in C major for Clarinet and Strings by Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847). Baermann  (below) was perhaps the most admired and influential clarinet virtuoso between Mozart’s buddy, Anton Stadler, and the admired friend of Brahms, Richard Mühlfeld. Baermann was a friend of Carl Maria von Weber, who wrote concertos and chamber music for him, much influenced by the player’s style and skills.

Heinrich Baermann

The writing for the clarinet here is full equally of virtuosic and lyric demands, which were met beautifully by clarinetist Christian Ellenwood.

Ancora Quartet with clarinetist Christian Ellenwood CR John W, Barker - Version 2

Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831, below top) was a student of Franz Joseph Haydn, and for a while his rival. His name is forever linked with the makers of fine pianos, which members of his family became, while he was also active as a music publisher.

Ignaz Joseph Pleyel

Pleyel wrote large amounts of chamber music, and his Quartet in A major for Flute and Strings is a piece of charm and vivacity. Flutist Robin Fellows (below bottom) was the deft soloist in this.

Ancora Quartet with flutist Robin Fellows CR John W. Barker

Franz Danzi (1763-1826, below), an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven, was a prolific composer in just about every form and idiom, though he is particularly remembered as one of the pioneering composers of wind quintets.

Franz Danzi

But Danzi enjoyed selective advancing of individual wind instruments, as exemplified in the final item on the program, his Quartet in B-flat major for Bassoon and Strings. (The first movement is in a YouTube video at the bottom.) This was the only four-movement work on the menu, one full of good tunes and amiable spirit. Its bubbling humor was brought out by Carol Rosing (below), but the writing for the violin also gave Robin Ryan chances to show off as a friendly partner/competitor.

Ancora Quartet with bassoonist Carol Rosing CR John W. Barker

This entire program, attended by over 100 people, was an absolute joy to hear, and surely a revelation to many about how much unjustly neglected music there is for this “quartet” of string trio-plus-one.

The season ahead offers a wonderful chance for the Ancora players to explore such literature further.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet will perform a FREE concert of rarely heard quartets for winds and strings this Friday night at 7:30 p.m..

September 12, 2013
12 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Over the past decade, the Madison-based Ancora String Quartet (below) has received critical acclaim and established a solid reputation as part of the Madison chamber music scene. For more information, visit: http://ancoraquartet.com

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

Usually the Ancora plays at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, where its members have been artists-in-residence for several years. The members (above) are Robin Ryan and Leanne Kelso League, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello..

But not this time.

And usually the Ancora performs as a typical string quartet with two violins, a viola and a cello.

But not this time.

The concert of the Ancora takes place tomorrow night, Friday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, across from Randall Elementary School.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

There is no admission charge, but free will offerings will be accepted.

Because a usual member of quartet cannot play the date, some distinguished area wind players have stepped in.

The program includes:

Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 40, No. 3, by Franz Danzi (below top, 1763-1826) with bassoonist Carol Rosing (below bottom), a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who studied with Richard Lottridge and who plays with the Beloit-Janesville, Oshkosh and Madison Symphony Orchestras.

Franz Danzi

Carol Rosing

Quartet in A Major, Op. 56 No. 3, by Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831, below top) with flutist Robin Fellows (below bottom), who teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

Ignaz Joseph Pleyel

Robin Fellows

INTERMISSION

Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 18, by Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847, below top and in a different work in a YouTube video at the bottom) with clarinetist Christian Ellenwood (below bottom), who teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

Heinrich Baermann

Christian Ellenwood


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