The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: A busy week at the UW spotlights choral and vocal music with some wind, brass and guitar music included

November 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s going to be a busy week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

And especially if you are a fan of choral music, there is much to attract you.

Here is run-down by the day:

TODAY

At 3 p.m. in Mills Hall is a FREE concert of Combined Choirs that features the Women’s Chorus (below), the University Chorus and the Masters Singers.

Sorry, no word about the program, but the groups’ past record suggests excellent programs are in store.

TUESDAY

From noon to 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, William Buchman (below), who is assistant principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, will give a master class that is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, University Opera a FREE Fall Opera Scenes program with UW student singers (below form last year).

Featured are excerpts from four operas and one Broadway musical: “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach; “Der Freischuetz” (The Marksman or Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber; and “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein,

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) will give a FREE concert.

Members of the faculty ensemble are Alex Noppe and Matthew Onstad, trumpets; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Tom Curry, tuba; and Daniel Grabois, horn.

The program includes: Johann Schein: Three Psalm Settings; Peter Maxwell Davies, arr. Matthew Onstad: “Farewell to Stromness” (1980), from The Yellow Cake Review; Jan Radzynski: Take Five (1984); Gunther Schuller’s Music for Brass Quintet (1961); and Alvin Etler’s Quintet for Brass Instruments (1966).

For more information, go to http://www.wisconsinbrassquintet.com

THURSDAY

From 10 a.m. until noon in Morphy Recital Hall, the acclaimed Grammy Award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin (below), who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this coming weekend, will give a FREE master class that is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madrigal Singers (below top), under conductor Bruce Gladstone (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will present Part 2 of “Israelsbrünnlein” (Fountains of Israel) by the Baroque composer Johann Hermann Schein.

According to program notes, “Johann Hermann Schein’s collection of 26 motets from 1623 has long been considered the most important set of motets in the early 17th century. Schein (below), frustrated that there wasn’t a true counterpart of the Italian madrigal to be found in German music, set out to marry the expressiveness of the madrigal to German texts.

“In this case, he chose to set sacred and mostly biblical texts, rather than the secular poetry found in most madrigals. His set of spiritual madrigals display both moments of pure joy and exultation as well as heartbreaking sadness and longing.

“Last fall, the Madrigal Singers presented the first 13 of these motets, and this fall, we finish out the collection with motets 14-26.

“This music is incredibly moving and remarkably fresh, revealing a marked sensitivity to the texts and a mastery of musical expression.” (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m., in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, the Low Brass Ensemble will give a FREE recital. No word on composers or pieces on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mils Hall, the group Chorale, under conductor Bruce Gladstone will present “Songs to Live By.”

Programs notes read: “Music has always had a way to touch our souls the way other things cannot. When paired with poetry that speaks honestly to the human condition, it can lift us out of the merely abstract, touching our souls and offering insight on how we can be better at being human and humane.

“The Chorale offers a choral song-cycle by composer Gwyneth Walker (below) on autobiographical poems by Virginia Hamilton Adair, as well as three works by Elizabeth Alexander:  “How to Sing Like a Planet”; “If You Can Walk You Can Dance”; and “Finally On My Way To Yes.”

“Also on the program is Joshua Shank’s “Rules To Live By,” a heartfelt and moving piece whose text was written by the commissioning ensemble.

SUNDAY

At 5 p.m., in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble (below top) and Winds of Wisconsin will give a FREE joint concert.

Scott Teeple will conduct with guest violinist, Professor Soh-Hyun Altino (below bottom, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) soloing.

Here is the program:

UW-Madison Wind Ensemble:

“Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, #2,” by Joan Tower

Concerto for Violin and Wind Ensemble, by Robert Hutchinson with the violinist Park Altino

Winds of Wisconsin:

“Chester Overture for Band,” by William Schuman

“A Child’s Embrace” by Charles Rochester Young

“Vesuvius,” by Frank Ticheli

Combined UW Wind Ensemble and Winds of Wisconsin:

“Folk Dances,” by Dmitri Shostakovich


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