The Well-Tempered Ear

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 Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 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.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music: John W. Barker’s book on the history of UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet to be published this fall

June 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Local chamber music fans may recall that five or six years ago, the gala centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet, the string quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was celebrated in many ways.

After all, the Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) had by then become the longest-lived string quartet in the history of music.

Furthermore, the quartet and the UW-Madison established the model for chamber music group affiliations with universities, which has since become standard.

There were six commissions, later recorded in two volumes and three CDs (below) by Albany Records.

There were many free live concerts with the world premieres of the commissions.

There was a tour to Belgium (below is a concert at the Royal Conservatory), the home country of the quartet that was exiled in Madison while on tour in 1941, when Hitler invaded Belgium during World War II.

There was a terrific and impressive Pro Arte Quartet display at Dane County Regional Airport, put together with Tandem Press art publishers at the UW-Madison.

And there was a book, a complete history of the Pro Arte Quartet, commissioned from John W. Barker (below), a professor emeritus of Medieval history at the UW-Madison who is also the premier music critic in Madison. He writes for Isthmus and this blog.

Now his project, full of original research, has come to fruition and will be published in October.

Here is a link to information, including how to pre-order a copy, about the book and the author from the University of Rochester Press (Boydell and Brewer):

https://boydellandbrewer.com/the-pro-arte-quartet-hb.html

 


Classical music: The first-ever Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival takes place this coming weekend – and looks both very appealing and very affordable

June 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In retrospect, it seems inevitable.

But it took foresight and hard work.

For many years, the historic town of Mineral Point (below) – once a major lead and zinc mining town that is the third oldest city in Wisconsin – has been cultivating and rejuvenating itself through restoration and innovation as an enjoyable tourism stop, with fine restaurants, historic landmarks, terrific art galleries and gracious hosts.

Small wonder that the Smithsonian Magazine named Mineral Point one of the Top 20 Small Towns to Visit in the U.S.

But this coming weekend the appeal and attractions will move up a big notch.

That is because the inaugural Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival will take place this coming weekend, June 9-11, 2017.

To The Ear, the performers look excellent, the program look engaging and the prices sure look affordable.

Concerts by three young professional classical chamber music ensembles will be presented in the recently restored historic Mineral Point Opera House (below top and bottom, with the top photo by Michael J. Smith), an ideal chamber music venue with excellent acoustics.

The weekend will begin on Friday at 7 p.m. with a panel discussion by several ensemble performers and Festival Director Peter Schmalz about various aspects of classical music. A reception in the Mineral Point Public Library will follow the discussion.

Scheduled concerts include: at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the Ami String Quartet (below top) from Northwestern University in the String Quartet No. 1 by Bela Bartok and the “Harp” String Quartet, Op. 74, by Ludwig van Beethoven; at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Trombone Quartet (below bottom) will perform music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Anton Bruckner, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich and others; and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Ami String Quartet will perform the String Quartet No. 1 of Johannes Brahms and the String Quartet No. 12 (“American”) by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear the first movement of the famous “American” String Quartet by Dvorak in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ticket prices are: $10 for the panel discussion and reception; $15 for each concert; and $38 for the panel discussion and all three concerts.

Adds festival director Peter Schmalz:

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival is designed to meet three goals: to create classical chamber music listening opportunities for local and nearby residents; to establish a cultural tourism experience for visitors to Mineral Point; and to provide serious off-campus performances for advanced university chamber music ensembles.

“Summer classical music festivals were established in the 20th century to provide employment for orchestral and other professional musicians during the off-season. The fortunate result for the music-lover is an abundance of listening opportunities in every genre of classical music, often in locations away from the congestion and heat of large cities.

“The Mineral Point Chamber Music Festival modifies this design by presenting accomplished undergraduate and graduate ensembles in a compelling small-town setting at a reasonable cost. (Below is the Arts Mineral Point logo.)

“In addition to the Festival concerts, we encourage listeners to enjoy the food, galleries, architecture, landscape and people of Mineral Point. In the words of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “Classical music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for classical music.”

The Mineral Point Opera House is, in size and acoustics, an ideal venue for classical chamber music. Performers were selected by competitive audition, and will be housed by local residents for the weekend.

In addition to three concerts, festival attendees can be involved in a panel discussion about issues in classical chamber music, by asking their own questions of the panel.

The UW-Madison Trombone Quartet and students from Mineral Point High School and Dodgeville High School will also present a short concert in Library Park prior to the 1 p.m. concert on Sunday in the Opera House.

For complete information about events and tickets with complete programs for each concert, go to:

http://www.artsmp.org/chamber-music-fest/


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New Orleans seeks to once again become an American opera capital with an emphasis on diversity

May 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

When you think of opera in America, chances are good that you think of New York City with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Houston Grand Opera; the Santa Fe Opera; and countless other opera companies in many major cities.

And when you think of New Orleans, you understandably think of jazz.

But the truth is that for a long time, New Orleans was an American capital for opera, more important than many of the other cities mentioned above.

Consider the fact that the first opera performed in the United States was performed in New Orleans in 1796. And that at one point, New Orleans was home to five opera companies.

Plus, the opera that was performed there in the past brought racial, cultural and gender diversity to an art form that often lacked it and was largely Euro-centric. (You can hear the company sing “We’re Goin’ Around” from ragtime great Scott Joplin‘s opera “Treemonisha” in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Now some singers and others (below) have formed an organization – OperaCreole — with the aim of correcting racism and restoring New Orleans’ reputation for opera,  especially that of the many African-American and Creole opera composers who were native to New Orleans.

A fine story, with an illuminating interview, recently appeared on NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/28/530085480/a-new-orleans-company-shines-a-light-on-operas-diverse-history

Another excellent story, with more focus on repertoire and history, appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-small-step-toward-correcting-the-overwhelming-whiteness-of-opera

And here is a link to OperaCreole’s own website with more information about the company and its productions:

http://www.operacreole.com


Classical music: Con Vivo concludes its 15th season with an outstanding concert of music by Spohr, Martinu and Dvorak with guest conductor John DeMain

May 28, 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. Barker also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

For the conclusion of its 15th season, the Con Vivo chamber music ensemble (below, in a photo by Don Sylvester) called out an unusual plethora of players.

And, as it did back in 2013, it brought back conductor John DeMain (below), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera, to whip them into shape.

The program consisted of three very ample works.

The first was the Nonet, Op. 31, composed in 1813 by Louis Spohr (below, 1784-1859) — the first of its kind for this combination of strings and winds.

It’s in that no-longer-Classical-but-not-quite-Romantic idiom in which Beethoven was the big troublemaker. It is music of charm and imagination, altogether enjoyable as one appreciates the composer’s experimentation.

Following this was a contrasting work in the same form, the Nonet No. 2 (1959) by Bohuslav Martinu (below, 1890-1959). It dates from the last months of the composer’s life — note that, by coincidence, he died exactly a century after Spohr.

Using Spohr’s same combination of the nine instruments (below), it is a perky affair, in which Czech song and dance meet Igor Stravinsky, as it were. The second of its three movements is a particularly beautiful piece of coloristic writing. It can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The pièce-de-resistance was the final work, the Serenade, Op. 44 (1878), by Antonin Dvorak (below, 1841-1904).

I have to admit that this is one of my favorite works by one of my favorite composers. Composed for 11 players, it is really the composer’s tribute to Mozart, via a Romantic rethinking of the kind of wind serenades that Mozart wrote so wonderfully.

Thus, it is really a wind octet, with the addition of a third horn plus two string players (cello and double bass). Adding those two stringed instruments was a wonderful idea, allowing a significant enrichment of textures in the bass role.

The pool of 14 players involved in the program drew upon a lot of superlative talent active in the Madison area. Highly accomplished players individually, they join in full-bodied ensembles, given the added spirit brought by DeMain’s leadership.

While it would be unfair to single out individuals too much, I must say that I was greatly impressed by Olga Pomolova’s command of the fiendishly difficult violin parts in the two nonets, while I was also struck by the strong leadership of Laura Medisky, who played oboe in the nonets and first oboe in the serenade. (Valree Casey played second oboe in the serenade.)

The audience at First Congregational Church responded justly with an enthusiastic ovation at the end. Truly an outstanding concert!


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker

May 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and 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.

By John W. Barker

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org/reneworder)

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18


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Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 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 photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/)

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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.

By John W. Barker

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


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