The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) will give two FREE afternoon performances this Saturday and Sunday with the world premiere of a socially relevant piece by local composer Lawren Brianna Ware

August 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below) will present its ninth season this weekend, performing two free afternoon concerts.

Co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below left) and concertmaster Thalia Coombs (below back), the orchestra will perform music of Haydn, Wagner and Grieg, plus a commissioned work from local composer Lawren Brianna Ware.

Performances are Saturday, Aug. 3, at noon on the “Grace Presents” concert series at Grace Episcopal Church, located downtown at 116 West Washington Avenue on the Capitol Square; and on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 12:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Lobby of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art, as part of “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.”

(Please note that Sunday’s concert is NOT in the Brittingham Gallery III due to space constraints.) Sunday’s performance will be live-streamed on the Chazen website. Here is a link to the portal for streaming: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen7/

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Utevsky and Coombs offer the following comments about the program:

We’re excited to be working with Lawren Brianna Ware (below) on a new work she composed for us, Un sueño aplazado (A Dream Deferred – a quote from the African-American poet Langston Hughes), which chronicles the emotional trajectory of a migrant’s journey from Central America to the United States.

Our two high school Conducting Apprentices, Luke Whittingham (below top) and Quinn Wilson (below bottom) will each conduct one performance of a movement from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Whittingham conducts on Saturday and Wilson does so on Sunday.

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is a luxurious tone poem for small orchestra that he composed as a love letter to his wife Cosima, first performed on the staircase of their villa in Switzerland on her birthday. Often chamber orchestras don’t get the chance to dig into the great German Romantic repertoire, but this gem is a notable — and unforgettably beautiful — exception. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We conclude our program with Franz Joseph Haydn’s final symphony, No. 104. Nicknamed the “London,” it is one of 12 symphonies he wrote for performances there late in his career, and it remains one of his finest essays in symphonic form.

MAYCO is made possible by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

For more information about the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, go to www.mayco.org or call (608) 514-5537.


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Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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Classical music: “The Willies” –- the Willy Street Chamber Players -– excel in fabulous Bach and Mendelssohn at the last concert of the new group’s inaugural season. Don’t miss the second season next summer.

August 3, 2015
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

Surely the greatest and happiest surprise of this summer’s music season is the sudden emergence of the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), a group of mostly string players that almost seems to have popped up out of the ground spontaneously.

Willy Street Chamber Players logo

They have introduced themselves in four concerts on successive Fridays this month—experimenting with shorter-length, one-hour programs, and giving three of them at 6 in the evening, and one family concert at Friday noon.

Each concert has drawn progressively larger audiences at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top) on Spaight Street, on the city’s near East Side.

immanuel lutheran church ext

Willy Street audience

Most important, the group involves a bevy of former University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music students who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who are simply brimming over with talent and with the joy of making music together.

Their final concert this season, on last Friday night, officially offered two works. As a “thank you” to the increasing number of sponsors and a swelling public, however, the group also gave a glowing performance of the Gavotte movement from the “Holberg” Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (below). (You can hear the tuneful Grieg played by a much larger and far less intimate chamber orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

edvard grieg

The Grieg prefaced their playing the first full-length work, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

As now properly recognized, the Bach concerto is a work for nine solo string players (three each of violins, violas, cellos — below top, second and third in that order respectively) with basso continuo from the harpsichord (below bottom).

The intricacy of the part writing, especially involving constant interaction of the six upper parts, is particularly well appreciated when one can actually watch the players, who presented the music with a splendid combination of dash and discipline. (And they solved the notorious problem of what to do with the two-chord middle “movement” by adding only the tiniest violin cadenza on the first chord—very sensible and responsible.)

Willy Street Bach violins

Wiily Street Bach violas

Willy Street Bach cellos

Willy Street Bach harpsichord Jason Kutz

The final, and larger, work on the program was the Octet in E-flat by Felix Mendelssohn. This is the creation of an astoundingly precocious 17-year-old genius, and by general agreement it is a virtual miracle of composition.

Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s recourse to such a demanding scoring was not without precedent. He composed this in 1825. At about the same time, in the years 1823-47, the violinist-composer Louis Spohr (below) wrote four “Double Quartets” opposing two discrete string quartets against each other.

Louis Spohr

And, quite frequently, in his writing Mendelssohn does adopt the same strategy, pitting two distinct groups against each other. But he also explores the possibilities of eight-part texture, rich in contrasting colors and contrapuntal invention. It both is, and is more than, a simplistic double quartet.

Our eight Willy Street players did position themselves (below) as two opposing string quartets — with the cellists out in front, for a novel emphasis on the bass line.

Wily Street Mendelssohn Octet

Once again, it was such a benefit to watch these players engage each other in so many different ways. And with what spirit! Here was the music of a teenage genius, played by eight young players who threw their youthful élan into their work with unbounded passion. Yet there was also discipline, and the most careful nuancing of each player’s lines.

I would say that this is possibly the best performance I have ever heard of this work, certainly in live concert—something up to the highest professional and artistic standards.

I find it difficult to express fully my excitement over the sudden creation of this marvelous pool of young musicians. They have made it clear that this was just their first season: they are planning to return next summer, with some possible activities in between.

For member biographies, news and other information, here is a link to the group’s website:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

With minimal promotion so far, based on simple word-of-mouth publicity, The Willies — as I call them — have already found a swelling and enthusiastic audience.

Madison’s lovers of highest-class chamber music should take note, support and attend. How can I say it better? They are simply fabulous! It is an enormous blessing to any community that is lucky enough to generate such players!


Classical music news: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Andrew Sewell — who scored big with Beethoven and Britten this past weekend — is one of five finalists to lead the Illinois Symphony and Chamber Orchestras in Springfield and Bloomington.

February 27, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Andrew Sewell (below), the music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra since 2000, is among five finalists to lead the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and its Chamber Orchestra that perform nine concerts a season in Springfield and Bloomington.

Sewell, fresh off two acclaimed performances of Beethoven and Britten in Madison and Baraboo this past weekend, told The Ear that the would continue to live in Madison and head the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) plus commute by car for the 4-1/2 hour drive to Springfield.

“Madison is a great place to live and has treated us very well,” said Sewell, who lives her with his wife Mary. Sewell, a native of New Zealand, is a naturalized American citizen. He recently left the Wichita Symphony in Kansas after 10 years at its helm and he has guest conducted in Green Bay as well as Hong Kong and many other places.

Sewell said that, should he get the post with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra (below), the need for guest conductors to occasionally fill in for him Madison will depend on the concert schedule.

While he doesn’t intend to do that very often, he added, should it happen it would benefit both musicians and audiences to hear guest conductors.

Sewell was among 30 original names invited to apply for the Illinois post. Then 27 applied and they were narrowed down through interviews about a dozen and then five finalists were chosen to conduct performances. Sewell will return to Springfield at the end of March to conduct a program of Berlioz’ “Le Corsaire” Overture, Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. In late January, he conducted Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” and contemporary composer Michael Daughtery’s “Strut.”

The final choice will probably be announced sometime in late May, Sewell speculated, after all the finalists have conducted performances.

Started by the WPA during FDR’s “New Deal,” the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, is the second largest symphony in Illinois, coming in after the famed world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which snagged Riccardo Muti as its current music director, based in Chicago and Ravinia. But the Illinois Symphony also performs at Grant Park concert shell (below), designed by Frank Gehry, in downtown Centennial Park.

According to Sewell, the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s season has nine regular concerts – five symphony concerts and four chamber orchestra concerts plus a holiday concert and an educational outreach concert — but nothing comparable to the six weekly Concerts on the Square that Sewell programs and conducts each summer in Madison.

Here is a link to the home site of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra:

http://www.ilsymphony.org/concerts.html

Will Sewell get the post?

Well, of course The Ear is rooting for The Home Boy.

But I also think that Sewell would be a shoo-in if the board of directors of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra heard how much the WCO has improved in tightness and accuracy under his tenure; if they knew how well he puts together original programs of tried-and-true classics with overlooked or lesser known works; and if they understood what great up-and-coming and affordable but supremely talented soloists he manages to find and book.

Unfortunately, I could not attend the WCO concert this past weekend, but a colleague whose judgment I trust did. Here is the review by Mike Muckian for Brava magazine and his blog “Culturosity”:

http://culturosity.wordpress.com

Here is a link to a rave review by Bill Wineke for Channel 3000.com and WISC-TV:

http://www.channel3000.com/entertainment/30541524/detail.html

Here is a link to a review by Lindsay Christians for The Capital Times and  77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/music/reviews/wco-s-beloved-beethoven-provides-plenty-of-food-for-thought/article_3b27890c-5fbb-11e1-bc8f-001871e3ce6c.html

And here is a link to background story about Sewell and the plans and process to find a conductor for the Illinois ensemble.

http://www.sj-r.com/top-stories/x502070741/Five-named-finalists-to-head-Illinois-Symphony

Do you have any comments to leave for Andrew Sewell or for the directors of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra to read?

The Ear wants to hear.


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