The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: How did Baroque composer Telemann get overshadowed and why is he being rediscovered? Trevor Stephenson talks about his all-Telemann concerts this weekend

October 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) will give two performances of a concert devoted exclusively to the music of Baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann (below).

The performances are: Saturday night, Oct. 5, at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, where MBM will be artists-in-residence this season; the second performance is on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, at 3:30 p.m. at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

Tickets are $35 in advance and are available at the Willy Street Coop East and West, and at Orange Tree Imports. Tickets at the door are $38 for the general public; $35 for seniors; and $10 for student rush tickets that go on sale 30 minutes before each lecture. The lectures take place 45 minutes before the performance, at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m, respectively.

Why focus on the music of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)?

Trevor Stephenson, the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, talks about it in an email Q&A with The Ear:

Why does Telemann, who was so respected in his day, seem to get far less play, fewer performances and less mentioning today than his contemporaries Bach, Vivaldi and Handel?

Telemann was born in 1681 — three years after Vivaldi and four years before Bach and Handel. He was astonishingly prolific and it is estimated that he wrote more than Bach and Handel combined.

On top of this, he was very highly respected and was widely published and performed during his life. Remember, it was Telemann — not Bach — whom the Leipzig council wanted to hire for the music director position in 1723. But Telemann was enjoying his wonderful new post in Hamburg—a thriving port city — and was not about to go back to landlocked Leipzig where he had spent his student days.

At any rate, after the 18th century had passed and its music became somewhat marginalized, in the early 19th century it was Bach’s music, not Telemann’s, that suddenly re-emerged.

Bach’s tremendous emotional depth, contrapuntal mastery and ability to control large-scale forms in an almost heroic way spoke with greater urgency to the Romantic sensibility than did Telemann’s elegant craftsmanship. Indeed, 19th-century Bach scholars often mean-spiritedly used Telemann as a foil for Bach.

Telemann’s music nevertheless received a modicum of performances in the early 20th century, but in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Early Music movement really got rolling—and the level of period-instrument performance increased—it became apparent that Telemann’s music really was hot stuff!

Now his music is enjoying a wonderful and well-deserved revival.

What are the appealing and admirable qualities you see in Telemann’s music? Are there any drawbacks to his compositions?

Telemann had a wonderful sense of melodic invention — probably music’s analog to an artist’s ability to draw — and his tunes seem to flow out effortlessly. And although his output was opulent, he had an uncanny sense of form and how much weight – duration — any given musical scene could bear.

He also was a masterful musical polyglot, able to jump back and forth easily between Italian, French and German musical idioms; and like Bach, he was also adept at integrating them into a unified style—this integration of national styles was a frequently acknowledged goal of 18th-century composers.

Telemann’s limitations are apparent when he is juxtaposed with Handel, who could dramatically really take the roof off and who could also find the inner essence of the human voice, and Bach who, like Shakespeare, through a near alchemy of sound and meaning could consistently define and further what it means to be human.

How and why did you put this program together? What unifies it and what would you like the public to know about it?

Madison Bach Musicians’ concertmaster and assistant artistic director Kangwon Kim (below left with Emily Dupere) did the heavy lifting in putting together this wonderful program of Telemann’s chamber music. MBM will present three of Telemann’s programmatic or story works, one church cantata and three purely instrumental selections.

With narration and graphics, we’ll walk you through how he cleverly depicts scenes from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726, below), which had been in print only two years when Telemann wrote his topical Gulliver Suite in 1728. Telemann loved ludicrous irony, like the tiny Lilliputians dancing a heavy chaconne—which Telemann notates in a hilarious, confounding mass of 64th and 128th notes. And then there’s the Brobdingnagian giants doing their rendition of a light-footed gigue, rendered in loopy, cumbersome whole notes!

We’ll also present the marvelous Suite Burlesque based upon Cervantes’ Don Quixote (below): Quixote’s love for Dulcinea, his jousting with windmills, and how a crowd mocks Quixote’s faithful, world-weary servant Sancho Panza.

To top it off, guest artist mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below) will sing the droll and sweetly amusing cantata about the demise — brought about by the cat! — of a favorite and very artistic canary. Osowski will also sing the church cantata Weicht, ihr Sünden, bleibt dahinten (Yield, You Sins, and Stay Behind Me). Telemann wrote more than 1,000 church cantatas.

The concert includes non-programmatic works for string band: the dramatic and Corelli-esque Sonata à 6 in F minor for two violins, two violas, cello and continuo; and the sparkling Sinfonia Spirituosa (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom). I will also perform some fascinating Fantasy miniatures for solo harpsichord, and will give a pre-concert lecture at both events.

For more information about the program, the performers and tickets, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 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 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and 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

The early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/a-smaller-piano-for-bigger-artistry/article_38b80090-be0f-5050-9862-32c3c36c6930.html


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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
2 Comments

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!


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