The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: The eclectic fusion group Mr. Chair plays music by Stravinsky, Satie and others on Monday night in Spring Green

August 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Rural Musicians Forum:

Mr. Chair looks like a jazz quartet, sounds sometimes like a rock band, but in actuality is a contemporary classical music group in the guise of a modern band.

Classically trained musicians who are well versed in jazz, the players in Mr. Chair create a new sound using both acoustic and electric instruments.(You can hear Mr. Chair perform the original composition “Freed” in the the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Rural Musicians Forum audience will have the chance to enjoy the soundscapes of this fascinating eclectic fusion group on this coming Monday night, Aug. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below) in Spring Green.

Members of Mr. Chair (below) are Professor Mark Hetzler, trombone and electronics; Jason Kutz, piano and keyboards; Ben Ferris, acoustic and electric bass; and Mike Koszewski, drums and percussion. All have close ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where they also perform as an ensemble.

Mr. Chair’s compositions are long-form journeys, telling stories through sound by using and exploring the three pillars of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Think cinematic, orchestral, surreal, romantic, emotional and gripping, and always equal parts dissonant and consonant. Their influences are far-reaching from classical, blues and rock to soul, funk, jazz and beyond.

For this concert, Mr. Chair will perform re-imagined excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet masterpiece Pulcinella as well as music by Erik Satie and selections from their debut album, NEBULEBULA, which will be released on Thursday, Sept. 5, on vinyl, CD and digital streaming platforms.

The genre-bending quartet will perform in the beautiful Hillside Theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Taliesin compound. It is located at 6604 State Highway 23, about five miles south of Spring Green.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.


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Classical music: The Madison-based string quartet Quartessence will perform this Sunday afternoon at the Little Brown Church in Richland County

August 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this Sunday, Aug. 4, at 2 p.m. the Madison-based Quartessence string quartet (below, in a photo by Ralph Russo) will perform a rare public concert of classical music at the Little Brown Church in Richland County. (The group usually performs at private events.)

Performers (below, from left) are: violinist Suzanne Beia; cellist Sarah Schaffer; violinist Laura Burns; and violist Jennifer Clare Paulson. Beia, Burns and Paulson are members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Pro Arte String Quartet. Schaffer has a career in arts management and organizes the annual summertime Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

The location is 29864 Brown Church Road at the intersection of Highway 130 and Highway B, approximately five miles north of Highway 14.

Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students, and will be available at the door.

The program includes: music by baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi; the “Brook Green” Suite by Gustav Holst; the String Quartet in G Major, K. 156, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Household Music: Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes” by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (originally written for organ, one of the preludes can be heard in an orchestral arrangement in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Painting the Floors Blue” and “Thanks, Victor” by the contemporary American composer John Harbison.

The concert is sponsored by a family, and proceeds will be used by the Friends of the Little Brown Church for maintenance of the building. The donors are happy to be able to provide this opportunity to music lovers in the community.

The refurbished building is air-conditioned, so you can take a break from the hot weather while you enjoy the music.

Here is some background from Harriet Statz (below, far right), who organizes the event because the Little Brown Church is special to her:

“Last year we started what is turning out to be an annual event (maybe) at the Brown Church (below) in Richland County. That’s up the road (Highway 131) from where I lived in the late 1970s.

“Since then Julie Jazicek and I have been in contact about fencing for this historic place, as she is sort of the manager and deserves much credit for keeping both the building and grounds beautiful. Over the years some concerts have been held in the church, but until 2018 nothing classical. So we fixed that!

“Last year’s concert by the Quartessence Quartet was a resounding success. An audience of about 60 people encouraged us to keep going, so we did, and hope for even a larger turnout to fill up the place. As it turns out the acoustics are outstanding!

“The location is west of Spring Green and north of Lone Rock. It’s a lovely drive. So I invite you to mark this Sunday Aug. 4, on your calendar and come out to the country for a lovely afternoon of music. Bring friends! Share rides!”

For information, call 608-356-8421 or send an email to: FriendsOfLittleBrownChurch@gmail.com


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Classical music: The second week of programs by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers vocal and instrumental music that spans four centuries and includes a world premiere

June 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 26th season with two programs in three venues that all proved highly successful.

Building on that success, the chamber music festival with top local and guest performers, now turns to vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a world premiere.

As usual, the BDDS venues are suitably intimate for chamber music: The Playhouse (below top) at the Overture Center at 201 State St.; the jewel box historic Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 381 East Main St.; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Concerts are spiked with stories about the music, mystery guests and even door prizes.

This season’s theme is Alphabet Soup, because it’s BDDS’ 26th year and there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Each program is named after a combination of letters used in everyday language. Sometimes the musical interpretation of those letters is literal and sometimes it’s quite loose.

The second weekend of concerts features the San Francisco Piano Trio (below) Axel Strauss, violin; Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello; and Jeffrey Sykes, piano).

They are joined by UW-Madison’s pianist Christopher Taylor, soprano Emily Birsan (another Madison favorite and a graduate of the UW-Madison and Lyric Opera of Chicago) and internationally acclaimed clarinetist Alan Kay.

TWO PROGRAMS

Two Bs or not Two Bs includes evocative songs by Maurice Ravel for soprano, flute, cello and piano and an entertaining bouquet of earthy cabaret songs by composers Benjamin Britten, William Bolcom and Arnold Schoenberg, sung by Emily Birsan.

The program also features Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts” for clarinet, violin and piano, a work commissioned by the legendary jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman (below), and Johannes Brahms’ epic Piano Trio in C Major, Op. 87. (You can hear a historic recording of Benny Goodman performing the Bartok work, with the composer playing the piano, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Two Bs or not Two Bs will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Friday, June 16, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 2:30 p.m.


Special K is a showcase for Alan Kay, principal clarinetist of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

It includes “The Shepherd on the Rock” for soprano, clarinet and piano by Franz Schubert; the hip tour-de-force “Techno Parade” by Guillaume Conneson (below) for flute, clarinet and piano; and the Midwest premiere of “Living Frescoes” for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by American composer Kevin Puts.

Many will remember that Kevin Puts (below) was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer BDDS commissioned for the song cycle “In At The Eye” in its 25th season last summer.

The program is rounded out with Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major and three songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) sung by Emily Birsan, accompanied by Jeffrey Sykes.

Special K will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts, on Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., and at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin, in Spring Green, on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.

Photos by Dick Ainsworth of BDDS performances and behind-the-scenes will be on exhibit in The Playhouse through Sunday, July 9.

Single general admission tickets are $43. Student tickets are always $10.

For tickets visit: http://www.overture.org/events/bach-dancing

For more information about the programs, performers, performances and background, visit www.bachdancinganddynamite.org or call (608) 255-9866.

Tickets can also be purchased at Overture Center for the Arts, (608) 258-4141, www.overturecenter.org (additional fees apply).

Tickets are also available at the door at all locations.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


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