The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Isabelle Demers, who performs an unusual organ recital tonight at 7:30 in Overture Hall

April 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) welcomes the return of organist Isabelle Demers (below) for a recital tonight, Tuesday, Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Professor of organ and head of the organ program at Baylor University, Isabelle Demers enjoys a very active recital career with performances worldwide from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne to Madison.

Her program entitled The Three B’s includes music by Edward Bairstow, Joseph Bonnet, and Hector Berlioz with Demers’ own transcription of Berlioz’s blistering “Symphonie Fantastique.” She is renowned for her dazzling performances, dynamic style, and universal audience appeal.

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/demers, where you can also see Demers’ complete program, or by calling (608) 258-4141, or by going to the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ.

Here is a Q&A that the MSO did with Demers, who has more than two dozen videos on YouTube, including her own transcriptions of sections from “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that is at the bottom:

MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.

ID: I grew up in Quebec, Canada, and started piano when I was 6. Most of my family works in sciences, but my mother wanted music to be an important part of my education. I entered pre-college at the Montreal Conservatory when I was 11 and really loved it, so it was not a very hard decision to choose music as a career later on.

My mother also suggested that I learn organ when I turned 16; she thought it would be a good instrument for me, while I saw it as a way to pay for my piano lessons. I guess the moral of the story is that one should always listen to their mother.

MSO: What differentiates you from other organists?

ID: I’m much shorter and I have a lovely French-Canadian accent. Seriously, I think I have a different feel for registration because I didn’t grow up with organ music. I listened to lots of orchestral and operatic works as a teenager, and I think that it influences the way I register most works, especially transcriptions.

I also have a more extensive background as a pianist than most other organists, so virtuosic works might come slightly more easily to me. (By the time I stopped playing piano, I had learned almost all the Chopin etudes, for example.)

MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?

ID: Definitely the wide range of sounds and dynamics at our disposal! Being able to create my own sound world on every instrument I play is a very exciting part of my job. I don’t always play the same works, but even if I did, they often sound completely different when you try them on new instruments. I also like the physical aspect of playing organ; it’s good to get all your limbs moving together, especially when they are all falling on the right keys at the right time!

MSO: What would you say to someone at their first organ concert?

ID: Let yourself be moved by the instrument. Instead of trying to understand every note, listen for the bigger gestures, for the colors, for the larger picture. The organ has the potential to be very exciting and moving, but first one must forget that it is essentially a big machine.

If you don’t like the colors or the music, then hopefully it is possible to see the organist. I always find it fascinating to watch people play, and see how they can manage all the knobs and buttons on the console.

MSO: Other than playing the organ, what are some interests of yours?

ID: I love traveling, reading, spending time outside when it’s cold (which unfortunately doesn’t happen much in Texas) and cooking. I like to make ice cream, which is obviously very popular with the students as well. On my last visit to Madison I was able to try sour cream ice cream, which was delicious! I’ve tried to reproduce the recipe at home, but I think I’ll need some more practice.

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Classical music: University Opera stages a compelling and fully engaging cabaret of Kurt Weill songs

October 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend and colleague, The Opera Guy, has filed the following review.

By Larry Wells

I attended a nearly full-house opening of University Opera’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” Friday night in Music Hall on Bascom Hill.

The 90-minute show was comprised of about 20 numbers from the body of works by Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive. The ensembles, solos and duets were arranged into three sections with a loose narrative structure linking the pieces.

Throughout the evening I was unaware of the passage of time, which is one of my acid tests for a good performance. Likewise, I felt fully engaged.

Many of the numbers will be familiar to Weill’s fans. The well-known “Whiskey Bar/Alabama Song” was the opening solo for Sarah Kendall, who performed it more as a Puccini aria than as the world-weary, boozy Jenny. It was a novel and strangely compelling interpretation.

(Kendall performing “Whiskey Bar” with the company, is below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, who took all the performance photographs)

More convincingly conveyed was “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” performed by the sprightly and clear-voiced Emily Weaver. “My Ship” sung by Miranda Kettlewell (below right, singing the Ice Cream Sextet with Alec Brown) was perfectly enunciated and movingly sung.

Since there were no supertitles, clear enunciation was a problem in a couple of the performances.

Likewise, mention should be made of Emily Vandenberg’s haunting rendition of “Surabaya Johnny.” (You can hear the legendary Weill interpreter Lotte Lenya sing “Surabaya Johnny” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

My favorite performances of the evening included “‘Youkali” by Talia Engstrom. My notes simply said “Perfection.” And my perennial favorite Courtney Kayser (below) did not disappoint with “J’attends un navire” and “Denn wie man sich bettet.” She is an excellent actress, possesses outstanding musicianship, and commands a clearly focused voice.

The women singers seriously overshadowed the men’s solo performances. I was wondering why that might have been. One possibility is that the men, who are trained operatically, find that they need to scale back their vocal projection for lighter vocal fare and in doing so sound constrained.

(Below, from back to front and left to right, are: Alec Brown, Jeff Larson, Jake Elfner, Sarah Kendall, Talia Engstrom, Matt Chastain in the “Benares Song.”)

Having said that, I thought Matt Chastain’s “Oh the Rio Grande” from the not well-known “Johnny Johnson” was both well sung and amusing to watch.

My companion admired the voice and acting of Alec Brown, and we both believed that Tim Emery is a dead ringer for a young Jimmy Stewart.

Some of the most compelling moments were the ensembles from Weill’s heavier works. “The Benares Song” highlighted Weill’s gravitas as a composer as did “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” from “Das Berliner Requiem.”

The cast members’ acting and vocal skills came to the forefront in these ensembles. (Below is “Zu Potsdam unter den Eichen” with Matt Chastain, Miranda Kettlewell, Alec Brown, Tim Emery, Emily Weaver, Eliav Goldman and Jeffrey Larson in the foreground).

Daniel Fung (below top) heroically provided the piano accompaniment without slacking for even a moment. Kudos to him. He was joined by a string bass and drum all conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with unflaggingly appropriate tempi and dynamics.

This was the seventh production by David Ronis (below in a photo by Luke Delallio) for University Opera at the UW-Madison, and his consistently novel approach to the productions has made each one a joy. His commitment to quality and novelty is admirable.

I am eager to see what Ronis has in store for us this coming spring with “La Bohème” to be staged at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I highly recommend attending “A Kurt Weill Cabaret,” which will be repeated this afternoon at 3 p.m. and Tuesday evening (Halloween night) at 7:30 p.m. Admission for the general public is $25; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

For more background and information about getting tickets, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/classical-music-the-university-opera-performs-a-unusual-and-original-kurt-weill-cabaret-this-coming-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-and-next-tuesday-night/

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open a new season with an impressive program impressively played

July 11, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

Last Friday night, the six Willy Street Chamber Players (below) opened their third summer season at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

And once again, even though The Willys are relative newcomers, it is hard for The Ear to imagine a more perfect or more enjoyable concert.

The large and enthusiastic audience (below), which has grown considerably over the past two years, seemed to agree, judging by the standing ovations, loud applause and overheard comments.

So what made The Willys’ concert so great and so enjoyable?

Start with the basics

It was summery and informal. Shorts, T-shirts and sandals felt entirely appropriate.

It wasn’t expensive. A $15 ticket seems very affordable compared to what so many other local groups charge.

It wasn’t too long. They played just three pieces – two short and one long — that lasted under 80 minutes. That way you can enter the zone; concentrate hard and focus while you stay in the zone; and then leave the zone for good with time to do other things, including attend the post-performance reception with cookies, ice cream and coffee.

Spoken informal introductions to the pieces – each given by a different player – served as program notes, and they were kept short and to the point. (Below is cellist Mark Bridges humorously explaining the complicated love life of Brahms and how it affected his composing the string sextet.)

The playing itself was exemplary. (It featured the six core members plus guest violinist Suzanne Beia, below front left, of the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

The Ear detected no sour notes, no false starts or stops, no uncertain passages or interpretation. The well-rehearsed Willys played with precision as well as heart.

The program was typical Willy fare. It mixed short and long, old and new.

The old classics were two: Hugo Wolf’s charming “Italian Serenade” for string quartet (below) and with the String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, by Johannes Brahms, a long piece that received an energetic and thoroughly compelling reading.

But the star of the evening for The Ear came first: Jennifer Higdon‘s string quartet setting and contemporary take on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The riffs on the familiar tune by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (below) was new to The Ear and proved completely engaging, unmistakably modern-sounding yet accessible. (You can hear the Higdon work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Higdon string quartet (below) recalled an American tradition of using religious music for non-religious purposes. Think of how Charles Ives and Aaron Copland used old hymns and camp meeting songs, the most famous being Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

To be honest, a lot of new music just doesn’t speak to The Ear or reach him emotionally. It often makes him feel superfluous.

But The Willys have a knack for picking the right kind of new music that captures and holds The Ear’s attention, including the String Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass, the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain and “Entr’acte” for string quartet by Caroline Shaw.

It is a gift The Ear hopes they keep as they choose other contemporary composers and new music to perform with tried-and-true classics.

And if you want to hear more, you can go to The Willys’ website for details about the two remaining concerts this summer plus a FREE family-friendly Community Connect appearance at the east side Goodman Center from noon to 1 p.m. this Saturday. There they will play the works by Caroline Shaw and Daniel Bernard Roumain as well as “Tango for Four” by Astor Piazzolla and the Viola Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. (NOTE: An earlier mistake here and on the Willys’ website listed the String Sextet by Brahms rather than the Viola Quintet.)

The Willys complete the regular subscription season with performances at Immanuel Lutheran on two Fridays, July 21 (with music by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich) and July 28 (with music by Franz Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Both performances are at at 6 p.m.

For more details about the performers and the programs, here is a link:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

But if you do, you should know that Madison’s classical music documentarian and chronicler, Rich Samuels (below), is recording all the concerts to play this fall on his Thursday morning radio program “Anything Goes” on WORT-FM 89.9. Stay tuned for more information about air times.


Classical music: The seventh annual FREE Concert in the Park by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is this coming Wednesday night in Old Sauk Trails Park.

August 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) write:

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras is proud to be a part of Concert in the Park, hosted by The Gialamas Co. for yet another season.

WYSO Concert  the Park Tent 4

For seven consecutive years, WYSO has been invited by The Gialamas Company to be a part of this spectacular event. This special FREE concert has recently become a highlight of the summer.

The Youth Orchestra, consisting of members ages 14–18, will perform this coming Wednesday night, Aug. 12 (NOT Aug. 9 as was first stated in error), in Madison’s far west side in Old Sauk Trails Park, 1200 John Q. Hammons Drive, from 5 to 10 p.m. The music starts at 7 and runs to about 9 p.m.

WYSO Concert in the Park

The Youth Orchestra, under the direction of WYSO Music Director James Smith, will perform six works: “Festive Overture” by Dmitri Shostakovich; Movements 1 and 4 from Symphony No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff; excerpts from “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner; the first movement from Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” by Franz Schubert; Suite from “The Incredible Flutist” by Walter Piston (at bottom in a YouTube video); and “Over the Rainbow.”

WYSO Concert in the Park, playing under Jim Smith 3

The evening is capped off with a marvelous fireworks display.

fireworks

Before the event there will be an instrument petting zoo, face painting and Ice Cream Social. Tables, food and drinks are available for purchase. For more information, visit www.gialamas.com.

Make sure to stay after the event for a spectacular fireworks show. Set up lawn chairs, lay out blankets and put out your picnic baskets as you enjoy all of the music and activities this FREE event has to offer.

WYSO Concert in the Park Photo aeriel view

For additional information, please contact WYSO at (608) 263-3320 or e-mail at wyso@wyso.music.wisc.edu.

 


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