The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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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.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: Wikipedia offers a comprehensive overview of classical music in 2018. Plus, the annual New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic airs this morning on radio and tonight on TV

January 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – January 1, 2019 – brings just two items or stories to the blog.

NEW YEAR’S DAY FROM VIENNA

The first item is a kind of ALERT.

One of the most popular and beloved worldwide musical traditions is the annual Great Performances broadcast by National Public Radio (NPR) of “New Year’s Day From Vienna” with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This year’s conductor is Christian Thielemann  (below top) of the Munich Philharmonic and the host is Hugh Bonneville (below bottom in a photo by Nick Briggs) of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”

The concert is a sold-out feast of waltzes, polkas and marches (including the famous clap-along “Radetzky March,” with Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1987, in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The radio version will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio from 10 a.m. to noon THIS MORNING, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

Then at 8-9:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast the visual version of the event, complete with ballet and wonderful landscape, interior and architectural shots in and around Vienna. There will also be encore performances: https://wptschedule.org/episodes/48242142/Great-Performances/From-Vienna-The-New-Years-Celebration-2019/

For a playlist and more background, go to: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/from-vienna-the-new-years-celebration-2019-about/9076/

2018 IN REVIEW

The first day of the new year seems like the perfect time to look back and see what happened in classical music during the past year.

And this year, The Ear found something truly comprehensive and international.

Wikipedia has put together a year-end overview that is astonishing for its amount of detail. 

You will find a global day-by-day calendar that includes links, in blue, for more details.

You will find news items and major events – including the effect of the #MeToo movement as well as deaths and obituaries, jobs and retirements.

You will find a list of new music.

You will find a list of new operas.

You will find lists for several major awards for classical recordings.

It is a terrific resource — a good long read, both informative and entertaining. Perfect for New Year’s Day.

Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_classical_music

Happy New Year!


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opens its season with a variety of vocal and instrumental works

October 15, 2018
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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.

By John W. Barker

The new season’s first concert by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opened in Madison on Saturday evening, Oct. 13, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. It offered, as always, a program of wide range and variety.

There were nine performers involved this time, two of them singers — the familiar UW-Madison soprano Mimi Fulmer and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo.

Fulmer sang an Italian cantata of contested authorship, with Sigrun Paust on recorder (below). Later, Sañudo sang a Latin motet by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, with helpers (violinist Nathan Giglierano, Monica Steger on recorder, Eric Miller on gamba and Max Yount on harpsichord).

The two joined in three items from Claudio Monteverdi’s Third Book of Madrigals (below). They were a bit of a twist, for they were meant for five singers. So the other three parts were taken by three viola da gamba players (Anton TenWolde, Miller, Charlie Rasmussen) — which actually proved not the best way to project the madrigal textures.

The bulk of the program was instrumental.

Variations, or “divisions” made two appearances. From the obscure August Kuehnel, there was an aria given long elaborations by two gambas (Miller, Rasmussen). Another set of variations, from a collection published by John Playford, was dashed off by violinist Giglierano, with gamba (Miller) and harpsichord (Steger) for continuo (below).

The duo form was also represented by such a piece for two cellos (below), by Tommaso Giordani, played by TenWolde and Rasmussen.  A cello sonata by a certain Franceso Alborea was the solo spot for TenWolde, with Rasmussen and Steger on continuo.

With a more conventional ensemble, we heard a Trio Sonata in A minor by Georg Phiipp Telemann, with Giglierano and Faust, plus TenWolde and Steger as the continuo. (You can hear the Telemann Trio Sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom)

It was for the final item, as a grand finale (below), that all seven of the instrumentalists joined in a little ballet suite by Boismortier.

Music lovers who attend concerts such as these should remember that the works presented were, by and large, not intended for presentation to a “public.” This is mostly “parlor” music (“chamber,” you recall), meant for the players to exercise their playing skills for themselves and any friends.

There are masterpieces in this literature, but seeking them out is not the primary goal of the WBE. Rather, that is to allow performers to test and show off their skills in music they find challenging and satisfying. The pleasures which that gives to an audience are the bonus.

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has been around as a performing group in Madison since 1997. As such, it is the oldest surviving ensemble in town devoted to early music, and might be said to have inaugurated the taste and audience for that literature.

Such taste and audience have now expanded extensively, but the WBE continues to make its own chamber contributions with unfailing devotion.

For more information, about the WBE and its upcoming season, go to: https://wisconsinbaroque.weebly.com


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 2018
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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 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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians celebrate 15 years with three performances this weekend of “Arias and Sonatas” by Bach and Handel

October 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two towering geniuses of the Baroque era – Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and George Frideric Handel (below bottom) — were born in the same year, 1685, and just a little over 100 miles from each other.

Yet the two masters never met!

To mark their 15th anniversary, the Madison Bach Musicians will open their new season with three performances of a program “Arias and Sonatas” by the two great composers.

The program will include selections from Handel’s Violin Sonata in F major, Nine German Arias, Lascia chi’o ping (heard sung by Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom), Tornami a vagheggiar; and Bach’s Laudamus te (B minor Mass), Öffne dich (Cantata 61), Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden (Cantata 58), and Prelude and Fugue in C major (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II).

Advance-sale discount tickets are $30  general admission and are available at Orange Tree Imports, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West).

Online advance tickets at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33  for  general admission, $30 for seniors (65+)  with student rush  tickets costing $10 at the door.

Here are the performance times and places.

Each performance offers a FREE pre-concert lecture by MBM founder, music director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), who will also appear at NOON TODAY (Wednesday, Oct. 3) with host Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday.”

This Friday, Oct. 5, with a 7:15 p.m. lecture and 8 p.m. performance at the Grace Episcopal Church (below top and bottom) at 116 W. Washington Ave., in Madison on the downtown Capitol Square.

This Saturday, Oct. 6, with a 7:15 p.m. lecture and 8 p.m. performance at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top and bottom) at 1021 Spaight Street in Madison.

This Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, with a 2:15 p.m. lecture and 3 p.m. performance followed by an outdoor wine reception at historic Park Hall at 307 Polk Street in Sauk City. The Park Hall venue has limited seating, so it is recommended to buy tickets in advance either online or at Willy St. Co-Op (East or West), or at Orange Tree Imports.

The major guest artist is soprano Chelsea Shephard (below). Praised by Opera News for her “beautiful, lyric instrument” and “flawless legato,” she won the 2014 Handel Aria Competition in Madison. She returns to perform with the Madison Bach Musicians after appearing in MBM’s  production last season of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.”

Other performers include the Madison Bach Musicians concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below) on baroque violin.

Also, James Waldo (below) will perform on baroque cello. Known for his “nuanced, richly ambered” interpretations of Bach (LucidCulture in New York City), Waldo has lived and breathed period performance his whole life, having been raised in the home of two musicians who specialized in recorder, traverso and Renaissance choral music.

After graduate studies at Mannes College of Music and nine years living and working in New York City, he returned to Madison last fall to begin his DMA studies at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with Professor Uri Vardi. He recently participated in an all-Bach program for Midsummer’s Music in Door County, and is the regular principal cellist of Cecilia Chorus, performing twice a year in Carnegie Hall.


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Classical music: “Just Bach” — a monthly mid-day FREE concert series — starts this Thursday at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. Plus, the FREE fifth annual UW Brass Fest takes place Friday and Saturday

September 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday and Saturday, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will host  Brass Fest V. It features guest artists and the faculty group The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Events are FREE and OPEN to the public. For a schedule and more information about events and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/brass-fest-v-alumni/

By Jacob Stockinger

A new and noteworthy monthly event starts this Thursday. Here is an announcement:

“Just Bach” is a new monthly mid-day concert series in Madison. It celebrates the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

The series of hour-long concerts kicks off at 1 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 27,at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Admission is free, but goodwill offerings will be accepted.

The Madison series, inspired by a model and successful program established by conductor Julian Wachner at the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, will offer monthly concerts at Luther Memorial Church, presenting programs curated from Bach’s sacred vocal repertoire.

As in New York City, the concerts will open with all present singing a hymn, followed by an organ solo, with the rest of the program devoted to cantatas, motets, and possibly oratorios or passions. An important component of the initiative will be the training and inclusion of local singers for the chorus. The period-instrument orchestra will include local and regional players.

Audience members may take in food and beverage for their lunch, which can be consumed during the program.

This Thursday afternoon, organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will play the “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 (heard, with a graphic depiction, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the choir and orchestra will perform two beautiful cantatas: O heileges Geist- und Wasserbad (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water), BWV 165; and Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), BWV 32.

Adds the organizer Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who also directs the annual Bach Around the Clock event in March: “The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large.

“The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived. Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

“The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

“The dream team bringing this venture to Madison consists of four individuals who have each dedicated a significant portion of their careers to the music of J.S. Bach: soprano Sarah Brailey, who did her master’s at the UW-Madison and won the Handel Aria Competition; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; UW-Madison professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe; and modern and baroque violist Marika Fischer Hoyt who also performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, Sonata à Quattro and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The vocal soloists for the concert on this Thursday will be Sarah Brailey (below), Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, tenor Wesley Dunnagan, and Paul Rowe. The period orchestra of local and regional baroque players will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

After the debut, Just Bach dates go to Wednesdays and will take place at 1 p.m. on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

Our Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SingetdemHerrn

Our Instagram account is at https://www.instagram.com/_just_bach_/

A website is in the process of being constructed.

We are extremely grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall.

We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”


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Classical music: A FREE concert of songs and piano music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg will be given this Saturday afternoon at the UW-Madison

September 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has always liked Claude Debussy’s quote that the “both strange and delightful taste” of the music by Edvard Grieg is like “a bonbon filled with snow.”

And there is certainly much more to Grieg (1843-1907, below), Norway’s first internationally renowned composer, than the popular Piano Concerto in A minor and “Peer Gynt” Suite.

Here is a link to his biographical entry in Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edvard_Grieg

To help spread the word about this original but accessible composer who mastered melody and harmony as he incorporated Norwegian folk songs and folk dances into his work, the Edvard Grieg Society of the Great Lakes was formed last year.

This semester’s meeting will be on Saturday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

It will start with a master class at 1 p.m. that is FREE and open to the public.

Then at 4 p.m., in Morphy Recital Hall is a FREE recital of piano works, especially many of the Lyric Pieces, and songs by Grieg, whose wife was a singer. (The lyric piece “Evening in the Mountains” will be performed and you can hear Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The host is UW faculty member soprano Mimmi Fulmer (below), a champion of Scandinavian music who sits on the board of directors of the Grieg Society. She talked about Grieg and the event in an interview this past week with Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s program “The Midday.” You can hear that interview, with music, here: https://www.wpr.org/shows/mimmi-fulmer-1

Here is a link to more information about the performances and the complete program, which unfortunately doesn’t translate many of the song titles from Norwegian into English.

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/concert-with-the-edvard-grieg-society-of-the-great-lakes/

And if you wish to know more about or get involved in or support the Grieg Society, here is a link to its home web page:

http://greatlakesgrieg.weebly.com


Classical music: Here is an NPR interview with British cellist sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason and an encore presentation of his performance at the Royal Wedding last weekend

May 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

So far, at least in the United States, the 19-year-old British sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason (below) has been more talked about than talked to.

But on Saturday afternoon, NPR interviewed him for “All Things Considered.”

Some interesting facts about him and his blossoming career and his inaugural recording for Decca Records (below) came out of the six–minute discussion and questions by host Michel Martin.

Especially impressive was how all the children in his family are accomplished classical musicians. Here is a video of them playing music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev together:

And in case you missed it the first around, also included is an encore presentation of the three pieces he played last Saturday at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Here is a link to the interview and the encore performance:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/21/613025939/cello-bae-sheku-kanneh-mason-wins-worldwide-fans-after-royal-wedding

And here is a YouTube video of Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing his own cello transcription of a the song “No Woman No Cry” by reggae legend Bob Marley, who was a mentor and inspiration to the young musician:


Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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