The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Middleton Community Orchestra and cellist Andrew Briggs succeeded beautifully in music by Rossini, Dvorak and Mendelssohn but a public reading of short essays by Matt Geiger seemed out of place

March 3, 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 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 for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra  (below).

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There was an unusual element to the program.

The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).

Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.

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Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.

Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.

Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.

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The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). 

NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.

Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.

Steve Kurr conducting


Classical music: Jazz and classical music are closely related and work well together, says composer Daniel Schnyder. He discusses “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which the Madison Opera stages in its Midwest premiere this FRIDAY night — NOT Saturday — and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.

For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)

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The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)

Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:

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What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?

I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.

I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.

I do not see classical music and jazz as two completely different things. Jazz is by nature a synthesis of European music influences and African music.

The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.

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How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?

In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.

The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.

The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts —  but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.

It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.

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In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?

I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.

If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.

We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.

The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.

In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.

He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”

The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.

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Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?

There might be many different reasons for that:

1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.

2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.

3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.

4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.

5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.

6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.

7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.

The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.

8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.

I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.

9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.

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Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?

I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.


Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concert shows Andrew Sewell is a born Bruckner conductor who uses a smaller orchestra to reveal structure

January 30, 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 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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) gave the second concert of its season on Friday evening in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The program opened with a rarely performed symphony, No. 30 in D Major, K. 202, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart did not muster in this score anything like the ideas he delivered in his symphonies on either side of this one.

Still, it is an engaging piece, and maestro Sewell always shows great sympathy for the Austrian Classical-era composers of the late 18th century, so the performance was nicely molded.

The guest soloist this time was Croatian-born guitarist Ana Vidovic (below). She was originally scheduled to play the Second Guitar Concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, but for some reason she switched late on to the more substantial Concierto de Aranjuez by the 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.

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Unfortunately, Vidovic followed other guitarists of today who feel they must fortify their performances with electronic amplification, so she brought her own rig with her. The result was a boomy, hollow sound, completely artificial, pitted in fake balance against the natural world of the orchestral writing that was rendered, by the way, with charm and delicacy.

The composer (below) was very careful about not allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the intimate guitar, and generations of guitar players have been able to perform this and parallel concertos without benefit of sonic hype.

Alas, the combination of technology with egotism! Vidovic is obviously a musician of genuine artistry, but she quite sabotaged her playing by use of this six-string howitzer. And the knobs were still on through an encore, a trivial Cavatina by one Stanley Meyer.

joaquin rodrigo

The evening was richly redeemed by the main work. Sewell has, in recent years, been working his way into the symphonies of the 19th century, late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner—a composer usually tackled by large orchestras. But he has brought off the first two numbered symphonies with aplomb, and now was the turn of the Third.

This is a work with a complex history of versions and revisions. Sewell bravely chose to use the 1874 revision of the original 1873 version, rather than the ill-fated revision of 1877 or the once-standard bowdlerization of 1889.

Sewell could command only 20 string players, but they proved quite sufficient, even with the occasional divisions of the violins. The reduced lushness resulting allowed inner parts to come through, and the rest of the orchestra played magnificently. Sewell understands Bruckner’s individual rhetoric, with its stop-and-start pacings and dramatic shifts between tremendous power and great delicacy.

Sewell (below) is indeed a born Bruckner conductor. The second movement in particular I have never heard played so eloquently. (You can hear the second movement of the 1874 edition in the YouTube video at the bottom.) I don’t know if Sewell plans to probe still further into Bruckner’s symphonies, but I am ready to follow him eagerly if he does.

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Far from being put off by the often-maligned music of Bruckner, the very large audience gave the performance a justly deserved standing ovation. This was, I think, a genuine landmark in the WCO’s history.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players mix classical and contemporary string quartets and again show off their exceptional artistry and adventurousness

January 23, 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 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 provided the performance photo.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

A Place to Be, at 911 Williamson Street, is a former store converted into a kind of near East Side clubhouse. Amid the chaos and entanglements of this weekend, it has been, indeed, the place to be for lovers of chamber music.

Just as last year, the Willy Street Chamber Players gave a concert in this intimate “chamber” on last Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The string quartet fielded from the larger group consisted of violinists Paran Amirinazari and Eleanor Bartsch (who alternated recurrently in the first and second chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges.

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Their program mixed music of two traditional classical composers with that of two contemporaries.

Opening the program was the String Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772), by Franz Joseph Haydn, which was played with delightful elegance and spirit.

Later came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Four Pieces for String Quartet,” dating from 1843 to 1847 and published as a set designated Op. 81. These called for a richer playing style, which the Willys managed easily, and with strong feeling for the extensive fugal writing in two of the movements.

For more recent material, the group offered a tango tidbit by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and a recent work (2005) by Hawaiian-American, Harlem-based, crossover composer, string player and band leader Daniel Bernard Roumain.

The piece by Piazzolla (below), Four for Tango (1988, presumably scored for him by somebody else), is a kind of anti-quartet venture, requiring defiant employment of unconventional string sounds.

astor piazzolla

Even more unconventional is the three-movement String Quartet No. 5 (2005) by Roumain (below). Given the subtitle of “Rosa Parks,” it pays tribute to the heroic African-American civil rights leader who sparked the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Roumain is a classically trained musician who draws upon a range of Black music styles in his compositions. He too asks the players to break norms by using hand-clapping and foot-stomping as well as exaggerated bowings.

His musical ideas are interesting but few, and developed only in constant, almost minimalist, repetition. I was impressed, however, by his command of quartet texture, and by how the instruments really could work both together and in oppositions, especially in the long first movement. (You can hear the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is performed by the Lark Quartet, for which it was composed.)

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The four Willys dug into this novel repertoire with zest and careful control. In the entire program, indeed, they displayed an utter joy in making music together. Their artistry and their exploratory adventurism mark the group, more than ever, as Madison cultural treasures, richly deserving of their designation by The Ear as “Musicians of the Year for 2016.”

They will be giving FREE and PUBLIC performances at: Edgewood High School’s Fine Arts Fest (Feb. 14); the Northside Community Connect Series at the Warner Park Community Center (Feb. 19); the Marquette Waterfront Fest (June 11); and at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green (June 12). And we await impatiently their announcement of plans for their third series of Friday concerts this July.

For more information about concerts and about the group, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Then click on concerts or events.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in its holiday concert of great non-holiday music and shows why it is attracting bigger audiences

December 26, 2016
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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 89.9 FM. For many years, he served 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

Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak.  (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.

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After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.

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Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.

Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.

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The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.

Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.

Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra strings CR Brian Ruppert

The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.

In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.

Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.

MIddleton Community Orchestra audience

The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.


Classical music: Four major retirements this spring could put the UW-Madison School of Music in a staffing bind and could further hurt the standing of the university

December 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Merry Christmas!

NOT.

Happy New Year!

NOT.

Just as the first semester is coming to an end, The Ear has learned that four major retirements in the spring will put the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music staffing and teaching in a bind that poses some major challenges.

Three of the retirements are by major performers. The fourth is by a major scholar, a musicologist and music historian.

Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • John Aley (below), professor of trumpet. Aley, who has a national and international reputation and who once played with the American Brass Quintet, is also the principal trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and plays in the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. He plans to continue to reside in Madison and to continue his MSO duties one season at a time.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/john-aley/

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  • Lawrence Earp (below), professor of musicology. Since 1984, Earp, a trained bassoonist, has taught courses about and researched music and composers across the entire history of Western classical music.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/lawrence-earp/

Faculty

Faculty

  • Stephanie Jutt (below), professor of flute. Jutt, who is principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, also is co-founder and co-artistic director of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

Jutt plans to move to her native New York City to live, but says she will continue her duties with the MSO and the BDDS.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/stephanie-jutt/

Stephanie Jutt CR Dick Ainsworth

  • James Smith (below), professor of conducting, who has led the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra and is the music director of the University Opera. Earlier this year, he announced his retirement as the longtime music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Smith, a one-time professional clarinetist, plans to move into a new house he has built in Cross Plains where he will work on his repertoire and pursue stints as a freelance guest conductor.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/james-smith/

UW Chamber Orchestra, James Smith, conductor

All four have served the UW-Madison and area music-lovers well indeed and for a long time.

The bind for the music school is that, thanks to the boa constrictor-like choke hold on the UW-Madison’s budget and staffing by Gov. Scott Walker and his anti-intellectual, anti-education cronies in the Legislature and on the Board of Regents, tenured faculty do not usually get replaced by tenure-track positions. Instead the school has had to offer most new teachers non-renewable three-year stints as adjunct professors.

True, there is a long of talented people out there looking for jobs. So adjuncts are not necessarily inferior performers or teachers. But who wants to be moving around every few years and starting over?

As far as The Ear understands it, in the long-term the move to adjuncts is not good for the students, especially graduate students, for other faculty members and for the reputation of the School of Music, which has managed to secure major funding support for construction and physical plant projects but much less support for staff and scholarships.

Clearly, it introduces an element of instability and insecurity that hardly seems helpful in the competitive academic market place.

In any case, The Ear congratulates all the retirees on their distinguished careers and thanks them for so many years of public service and so many enjoyable hours of performing  and understanding great music. They will be missed.

Feel free to leave your own comments and reactions in the COMMENT section.

No doubt the future retirees would like to hear from you.

And The Ear too wants to hear.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
3 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 photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

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Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

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The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

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The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

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The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

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The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music: Hearing Bach and Haydn on a clavichord proves intimate and revelatory. Plus, a FREE trombone recital is tonight and an organ recital on Sunday afternoon

November 12, 2016
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ALERT 1: Tonight at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison trombonist Mark Hetzler will give a FREE recital with pianist Vincent Fuh. Hetzler will perform a retrospective of pieces he has recorded over the past 14 years, representing five different recordings. Music from the following recordings from his Summit catalogue will be represented in this recital: American Voices (2002); Serious Songs, Sad Faces (2003); 20th Century Architects (2004); Three Views (2012); and Blues, Ballads and Beyond (2015).

Hetzler will repeat this concert on Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fond du Lac, at St. Patrick’s Church, 41 E. Follett Street, as part of the Searl Pickett Chamber Music Series.

For more information go to: http://www.markhetzler.com/

ALERT 2: Tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, Nov. 13, at 4 p.m., Dan Broner, the music director at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, will give a FREE organ recital at the FUS Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. The program features the Trio Sonata No. 4 in E minor, “Sleepers Wake!” and the Prelude and Fugue in A major by Johann Sebastian Bach; Prelude, Fugue and Variations by Cesar Franck; and “Dorian Chorale” and “Litanies” by Jehan Alain. Donations will be accepted.

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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The clavichord was an instrument of subtle importance in the 18th century. It was a kind of alternative to the harpsichord in several ways. For one, its strings were not plucked, as in a harpsichord, but hammered, as in its descendants, the fortepiano and the subsequent pianoforte or just plain piano.

The clavichord, moreover, was really an instrument for private use, for practice, study and composing work, rather than for concert use, beyond the most intimate of audiences. (You can hear a sample, using J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Local builder and restorer, Tim Farley has made several clavichords before, but this one is a relatively large one. Notable is its incorporation of wood from a number of old pianos, and some rare maple wood that had been submerged in water for a long time. Out of these elements he has created an instrument of great beauty and elegance, as well as of distinctive artistic usefulness.

farley-clavichord-with-hands-tom-moss

To introduce this new instrument to Madison’s musical community, Tim and his wife Renee, the reigning royalty of the remarkable Farley’s House of Pianos on the city’s far west side, chose not to do so in their usual salon, as it is too commodious and not noise-free.

Instead, they brought it to the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 6. A program of four works was played on it by David Schrader (below), an early music specialist who teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

david-schrader-and-clavichord

An audience of about 45 attended. I suspect many were surprised by how tiny (not tinny!) was the instrument’s sound—much more pale than what they would have expected from a harpsichord. Modest as is the Gates of Heaven hall, it was still a bit larger than ideal. Nevertheless, the audience followed the performance intently, and I heard no complaints from anyone afterwards about inaudibility.

The music chosen was entirely from the 18th century. It began with the Partita No. 5 from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung or Keyboard Works. On these terms, we heard it as Bach might have played it himself for his own pleasure—or as a student might do for study.

The two middle works were from the other end of the century. An extended Sonata, K. 330, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would in its time have been played on the fortepiano, or even harpsichord, and sounded rather pallid this way.

But a two-movement Sonata in G minor by Franz Joseph Haydn, full of introspective feeling, worked well on the clavichord as highly personal expression.

Balancing the opening with J. S. Bach was the closing work, a three-movement Sonata in A minor (Wq49), a relatively early work by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, his most influential son. C.P.E. Bach was famous as an expressive player, and for music of inward probing.

I had hoped to hear Schrader demonstrate on this new instrument its feature of Bebung, a capacity for quasi-vibrato quivering on sustained notes that the clavichord’s action famously allowed the player to exploit. There was some of that, but Schrader explained that such an effect did not work on many pitches, limiting its possibilities.

Listeners for whom this type of instrument is unfamiliar surely found this program illuminating, while this instrument’s excellence was a further reminder of what craftsmanship Tim Farley (below, seated at the clavichord he built) has brought to Madison.

tim-farley-at-clavichord


Classical music: A Halloween treat of music for multiple pianos was served up by the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos

October 31, 2016
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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 provided the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Salon Piano Series offered by Farley’s House of Pianos on Madison’s far west side continues to be a project of imagination and inspiration, with concerts offering a range of visiting performers and unusual repertoire.

It was quality and quantity in the program offered on Friday night, which was then repeated the following evening. A team of four—count ‘em, four— highly accomplished pianists, who are used to performing together as a team, gave a remarkable concert of multi-piano splendor.

The four (below, from left) are: Spaniard Daniel del Pino, Canadian Lucille Chung, Israeli Alon Goldstein and Italian Roberto Plano. Their collaborative facility is linked to utter enthusiasm in their work.

four-on-floor-players-jwb

For this program, Farley’s assembled four superlative instruments. Three are vintage Mason & Hamlin pianos, one made in 1907, the other two dating from 1914; plus a Steinway grand made in 1940. The array of these instruments—all four in the center of the salon, with circles of chairs all around for the audience—was itself an inspiration, and a fine success.

four-on-the-floor-piano-layout-jwb

The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 381, for piano four hands, a kind of “miniature” introduction, and beautifully played by Chung and Goldstein at the Steinway.

four-on-the-floor-mozart-goldstein-and-chung-jwb

“All hands,” as it were, then turned out for the remainder of the program.

A four-piano arrangement of the Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns was knowingly made in 1874 by Ernest Giraud, a contemporary and colleague of the composer.

This was followed by a more recent effort, a Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” (1994) contrived by the distinguished Mormon musician Mack Wilbert. Both of those works built up spectacular effects of sound and color, in music certainly familiar in their original forms.

Also familiar, of course, is Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, played in this program in a four-piano arrangement by Jacques Drillon (1992). Here, I felt that such an arrangement was a bit forced. All those hands made the repeated rhythmic foundation that much more pounding and more relentless than in the orchestral original, while the colors available from the pianos could not quite match the wonderful varieties that Ravel could draw from his wider range of orchestral instruments.

Particularly disappointing, I found, was a four-piano expansion (1886) by Richard Kleinmichel of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. While the single-piano original is dense, its division among four players was mainly a matter of doubling up the players on the same parts: more analytic than the original, this treatment does not really improve anything.

As an encore, the four delivered a Horowitzian transcription of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. (You can hear Vladimir Horowitz perform it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Responding to endless audience enthusiasm, the four then sat down together at the Steinway to play a Galopp by one Albert Lavignac, written for one piano, eight hands. The four players had a ball climbing all over each other to do this novelty piece as intended.

four-on-the-floor-encore-jwb

One interesting feature of the program was the opportunity to hear and compare these four fine pianos against each other. And the four performers added to the experience by constantly rotating who played which instrument.

To my ears, the Mason & Hamlin instruments could deliver a marvelous richness and power. But the Steinway could combine those qualities with an added brilliance and coloristic range.

But, then, that was to my ears.

Whatever, a dazzling keyboard evening was had by all.


Classical music: Does Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” reveal anything about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump”?

October 29, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

For generations, the conquests of the legendary Don Juan were treated as seductions.

But were they really rape?

The question is important in considering the masterpiece opera “ Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

don-giovanni-met-2016-simon-keeleyside

One blog writer for slate.com – Bonnie Gordon, who teaches a class on music and gender at the University of Virginia — draws a link between the charismatic historic nobleman and the current charges of “womanizing” and allegations of sexual assault made against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (below).

Donald Trump thumbs up

She doesn’t bring up whether the same discussion applies to former Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doesn’t seem a stretch.

She raises questions about what is sexual assault, seduction and rape – and how the definitions of a “rape culture” have changed over time and depending on whether it comes from a man’s or a woman’s point of view.

She pegged her essay to LAST weekend’s broadcast performance of the opera by “Live From the Met in HD” with Simon Keenlyside in the title role. In the YouTube video at the bottom, with English subtitles, Don Juan’s servant Leporello sings an aria about his master’s thousands of “conquests.”

But despite the week that has passed since the broadcast of the production, to The Ear the essay still seems relevant as the national election approaches.

Here is a link to that essay:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/10/21/what_don_giovanni_an_opera_about_a_charismatic_rapist_can_teach_us_about.html

What do you think about the essay and its main argument or point?

The Ear wants to hear.


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