The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra leaves listeners wanting more after impressive performances of Corelli, Britten and Mozart

July 24, 2017
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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 radio show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

For six seasons past, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below top), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky, has enriched our summers.

It seemed that last year’s offerings were to be their final one. But they returned in an “Encore!” concert on last Friday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, giving hope that this wonderful ensemble of talented young musicians will yet continue to be with us.

The program was a brave and challenging one.

It opened with the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 4, by Arcangelo Corelli. The wonderful concertos of the Op. 6 are well known from recordings, but are not that often heard in concert.

Corelli’s richly satisfying string sound was beautifully realized by MAYCO’s 22 players. The concertino was nicely set out in front of the full-ensemble tutti, and the performance was led by  concertmaster (and Utevsky’s wife) Thalia Coombs — who, to my ears, worked in some lively embellishments of her own.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century, composed for horn virtuoso Dennis Brain and Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, as well as the Boyd Neel Orchestra. It takes its point from the Italian word sera, meaning either “evening” or “night.” The six English poems Britten set to music deal with aspects of night, the horn adding comments to the tenor’s singing, all framed by a horn solo.

Utevsky led a strongly disciplined string ensemble, while horn soloist Joanna Schulz coped confidently with her terribly difficult part.

The weak link, unfortunately, was tenor Dennis Gotkowski, whose voice is neither attractive nor precise, and whose diction generally failed to project the important words clearly.

Still, in all, it proved a brave delivery of a demanding and absorbing work. (You can hear it performed in its entirety by the artists for whom it was composed, hornist Dennis Brain and tenor Peter Pears, in the historic YouTube video at the bottom.)

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, is certainly a familiar and often performed concert work. But I have to say that this student ensemble, under the baton of Utevsky, gave it a remarkably exciting performance.

This was not a performance that floated in a dark, but passively tragic gentleness. This was a performance that grabbed you by the lapels, looked you straight in the eye, and gave you a good shaking.

Its pungency was aided, of course, by the altering of the wind parts, nine of them – sitting apart (below) — against the string band that was far smaller than most orchestras muster these days.

One really could hear the different ways in which the winds spice or dialogue with the strings. But the exuberant playing that Utevsky drew from his orchestra made this a truly memorable rendition. (As a graceful gesture, Utevsky allowed his conducting apprentice and assistant, violist Brett Petrykowski, to preface the full Mozart performance by conducting just the exposition of the first movement.)

The audience was a modest one, perhaps diminished by concerns about the weather or by the limited promotion the event was given. But those present clearly enjoyed the concert, which makes many of us anticipate that MAYCO will really continue.


Classical music education: Madison Music Makers becomes part of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

June 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras has sent The Ear the following news announcement to post on the blog   He is very happy to do so and urges everyone to support the new venture. It is one of the best investments in the future of classical music that you can make:

“Recently, the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras unanimously voted to acquire the Madison Music Makers program (below are participants), founded by Bonnie Greene in 2007, making it a program of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

“This historic decision was the culmination of two years of research and due diligence to lay the groundwork for this action. This will insure that the mission of Madison Music Makers — to provide access to music education and performance opportunities for underserved children — will be properly supported well into the future.

“Says Greene (below): “I’m absolutely thrilled that the WYSO organization is willing to adopt the Music Makers program, which has been so meaningful for so many children. This is another instance of how much support is in place in the Madison area community for children whose opportunities are so limited. This move will better ensure the long-term health of Music Makers.” (You can learn more about Madison Music Makers in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“The members of the WYSO Music Makers program will have the opportunity to take private lessons on violin, guitar, piano and drums at a free or reduced cost. Group lessons will be held each week. There will be no audition required to be a part of WYSO Music Makers.

“WYSO has hired Paran Amirinazari (below) to act as the Program Director of WYSO Music Makers.

Says Amirinazari: “Over the years it has been a joy getting to know both Music Makers and WYSO students and families. I’m honored to be able to work closely with Bonnie Greene and WYSO to continue the vision of quality music education for all. I’m constantly inspired by the amount of support the city of Madison has for the arts and I look forward to becoming closer and more engaged in the community at large.”

“Amirinazari is a WYSO chamber music coach and has led the Music Makers Honors Ensembles for the past few years. Her many musical accomplishments and her familiarity with both WYSO and the Music Makers programs make her uniquely qualified to build a successful program that will benefit many children in our community.

“She is also a professional violinist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players. She will receive her Doctor of Musical Arts in Violin Performance from UW-Madison in the fall and is looking forward to carrying out the WYSO Music Makers mission and being a part of the WYSO team.

“The acquisition of Madison Music Makers will not only help to serve the mission of WYSO by enriching lives by providing transformational musical experiences and opportunities, but also provide access to a quality music education, the opportunity to improve confidence, focus and discipline to achieve better academic results, and performance opportunities that will make members proud of themselves and improve their self-esteem.

“Over the last 52 years, WYSO has continued to evolve and grow both in the size of its membership and the scope of its programs. Without a doubt, under the WYSO umbrella, WYSO Music Makers will continue to evolve and grow as well.

“With the addition of WYSO Music Makers, WYSO will be able to expand the outreach of its music education program to a wonderfully diverse group of children who will come to know the joy of music.”

For more information about WYSO, got to: https://www.wysomusic.org

For more information about Madison Music Makers of Madison, go to: http://madisonmusicmakers.org


Classical music: The third and final week of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season offers vocal music, four-hand piano music and instrumental chamber music of four centuries plus a Midwest premiere

June 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Building on the success of the past two weekends and previous four programs, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society chamber music festival, which features top local and guest performers, concludes its season this weekend with a typically eclectic mix of vocal and instrumental music that ranges from the late 18th century up to today, including a Midwest 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 final weekend of concerts welcomes back audience favorites Hye-Jin Kim, violin; Ara Gregorian, viola; Randall Hodgkinson, piano (below top); and Timothy Jones, bass-baritone (below bottom).

They are joined by the acclaimed local violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below top), a new member of the UW-Madison music faculty, and by Madison Symphony Orchestra cellist Madeleine Kabat (below bottom, in a photo by Christian Steiner), who is filling in for UW-Madison professor and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp, who has sustained a finger injury.

“Cs the Day” includes the Midwest premiere of “Cool Fire” for flute, string quartet and piano by Paul Moravec (below), and Mozart’s  “Coronation Piano Concerto” arranged for the entire ensemble.

Timothy Jones will be featured in the song cycle, “Let Us Garlands Bring” by Gerald Finzi. These are settings of carpe diem poems of Shakespeare. (Carpe diem is Latin for “seize the day” = “Cs the Day”— get it?) You can hear the songs in the YouTube video at the bottom.

At the center of this program is Carl Czerny’s Sonata in C minor for piano four-hands. BDDS will suspend a camera over the keyboard so the audience can see how the hands of the pianists cross and interlock throughout this virtuosic masterpiece. (Below is a view of a similar set up six seasons ago.)

Cs the Day will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center for the Arts on Friday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m.; and Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 25, at 2:30 p.m. 

The final program of the season, “R&B,” features “Rounds for Robin, a short work by Kevin Puts (below top) for flute and piano written in memory of comedian Robin Williams, and the Flute Quintet in G minor by Luigi Boccherini (below bottom).

The “Santa Fe Songs” for baritone and piano quartet by Ned Rorem (below, in a photo by Christian Steiner) features the mesmerizing voice of Timothy Jones in one of the great American song cycles.

The 26th season concludes with Johannes Brahms’ towering Piano Quintet in F minor.

R&B will be performed at The Playhouse, Overture Center, Madison, on Saturday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m.; and Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 25, and 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 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: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms join beer and brats at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s new FREE Summer Serenades starting this Sunday afternoon at the Union Terrace

June 13, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Spread the word but get your seat early!

This coming Sunday afternoon, beer and brats are about to mix with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at Madison’s premier summer watering hole when the new FREE Summer Serenades begin at the landmark Union Terrace (below).

The Ear likes that combination a lot along with classical concerts that last only about an hour. No details on the programs yet, but hey — for an hour you can be a sport and chance it.

“Casual high-brow” increasingly seems the way to go, especially in Madison. And fittingly, a lot of the performers chosen by the Wisconsin Union Theater have ties to the UW-Madison as professors, graduates and students.

All hour-long concerts are FREE and take place on Sundays at 5 p.m., except on July 2, which will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below)
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Named 2016 Musicians of the Year by The Well-Tempered Ear Blog, their programming is adventurous, combining beloved classics and new music from contemporary composers.

Stephanie Jutt, flute (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf, piano (below bottom)

Sunday, July 2, 2017 at 5:30

Two of Madison’s most esteemed musicians will delight with melodies from their upcoming CD and will celebrate the Fourth of July weekend with patriotic tunes.

 Isthmus Brass

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comprised of the finest professional brass players in the Midwest, Isthmus Brass (below) is Wisconsin’s premiere large brass ensemble. It has performed on concert series and music festivals throughout the Midwest.

An Evening of Arias and Art Songs

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hear a fun night of comic and classic melodies from your favorite operas. It features extraordinary lead singers from the School of Music and UW Opera Theater. Among them: Katie Anderson, soprano (below top); Courtney Kayser, mezzo-soprano (below middle); José Muñiz, tenor (below bottom); and accompanist Thomas Kasdof, piano.

Sound Out Loud and Lucia String Quartet

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sound Out Loud (below) specializes in contemporary music from the early 20th century to the present. They expand the realm of possibilities within contemporary chamber music repertoire through the implementation of experimental techniques, the incorporation of a variety of instruments and musical styles from the Middle East and Asia, innovative performance practice, and the use of live electronics.

The Lucia String Quartet (below) has been performing at events throughout the Midwest for over 15 years. The string quartet’s repertoire puts a fresh spin on many favorite rock/pop songs as well as eloquently performing classical pieces.

Summer Serenades are presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee with support from the Bill and Char Johnson Classical summer Concert Series Fund.

This is the inaugural season But Ralph Russo, director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, adds: “The 2017 Summer Serenades is a pilot program. The coordinator has put together an excellent program in a very short time and I’m confident we’ll see a good audience response.

“Assuming all goes well I’m hopeful it will continue for many summers to come. But we won’t know for certain until we do a thorough evaluation at the end of summer and determine if the donor is interested and willing to continue funding the program.”


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opens its new season with rarities beautifully performed

October 18, 2016
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 for WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos in the review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The season opener for the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble was held last Saturday night at the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue, in James Madison Park on East Gorham Street.

Gates of Heaven

An unusual feature of the program this time was a kind of running backbone: the music of the little-known 18th-century French composer Benoît Guilemant.

From a collection of duo miniatures for flute and violin, six short pieces were sprinkled through the program. There was also a larger work of his, a Quartet Sonata, Op. 1, No. 3, for two flutes and violin with basso continuo. All these were spirited, clever and imaginative pieces that greatly delighted the audience.

wbe-instrumentalists-oct-2016-jwb

The French Baroque was further represented by a cantata by François Bouvard (1684-1760), sung by mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo, with flutist Brett Lipshutz and violinist Nathan Giglierano taking obligato parts.

The other veteran singer involved, soprano Mimmi Fulmer, delivered a pungent Italian mini-cantata by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677).

wbe-with-two-singers-oct-2016-jwb

And, from the German Baroque scene, there was a fine Trio Sonata, Op. 1, No. 2, by the great Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The earliest music in the program was provided by Claudio Monteverdi: first, the delicious concertato madrigal, “Chiome doro” from the Seventh Book (1619); then three delightful pieces from the earlier Scherzi Musicali of 1607.

The ensemble this time consisted of eight performers. Besides the two singers and the two instrumentalists named, there were regulars like Eric Miller (viola da gamba), Monica Steger (flute, recorder, harpsichord), Anton TenWolde (cello), and Max Yount (harpsichord). Violinist Giglierano is a new presence in the group, and it seems as if he will be returning to the fold later this season.

wbe-all-players-and-singers-oct-2016-jwb

One hates to think that the audience was somewhat smallish due to football. But it was a lively and—as always and justly—an appreciative one.


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