The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” is a musical treat despite its outdated story. Performances remain this afternoon and Tuesday night

March 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – the very experienced Opera Guy for this blog – took in the University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Friday night at Music Hall on Bascom Hill and filed this review. (Performance photos are by Michael R. Anderson.)

By Larry Wells

I attended the opening night of University Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” (So Do They All or Such Are Women).

Considered a musical masterpiece, the opera features a cast of six singers who participate in a comedy about love and fidelity. (Below, from left, are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi, Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso, Kelsey Wang as Despina, Kevin Green as Guglielmo and Chloe Agostino as Dorabella.)

In director David Ronis’ attempt to make the story more timely, the action took place in a vaguely early 20th-century setting – the Roaring Twenties, to be precise — suggested by the women’s costumes and the art deco set.

Two of the men, who are called off to war, brandished swords, which I believe were not widely used in World War I. (Below, from left, are Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo in the opening scene from Act I.)

In any event, an attempt to make an historic artifact with its incumbent unenlightened views of women relevant to the 21st century may be fruitless, and I believe that audiences today recognize the archaic attitudes expressed therein as comic and dated.

That sexist manipulation needs to be discussed today, as suggested in the director’s notes, and that women’s “agency” — to quote an overused academic term — remains an issue today is the tragedy. This comedy goes only a small distance in helping us realize that some things have not changed, even though many have.

But on to the performance.

The three female characters (below) included the vocally stunning Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi. Her “Come scoglio” was a showstopper. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella and Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi in their Act I duet.)

Chloe Agostino’s sweet soprano perfectly reflected her Dorabella, and Anja Pustaver’s comic turn as Despina revealed an interesting voice that reminded me of Reri Grist’s Oscar in the Erich Leinsdorf recording of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” – which is a compliment, albeit possibly obscure.

Kevin Green as Guglielmo grew on me as the evening progressed and as he became more confident. But the standout was James Harrington as Don Alfonso. I feel that he is a major talent in our midst. (Below in the foreground are Cayla Rosché as Fiordiligi and Benjamin Hopkins as Ferrando; in the background are James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Kevin Green as Guglielmo.)

Green and his partner, Benjamin Hopkins’ Ferrando, had to don disguises in order to tempt each other’s intended. In the libretto they disguise themselves as Albanians.

In what I can only hope was a nod to political correctness in order to spare the feelings of our Albanian brothers, they disguised themselves in this production as lumberjacks clad in flannel shirts and denim jeans — which was incongruously absurd but amusing at the same time. (Below,Kelsey Wang, left, as Despina examines Benjamin Hopkins as the Albanian Ferrando in a fake medical examination during the finale of Act I.)

The vocalists shone most in their many ensembles – duets, trios, quartets and sextets. The blendings of the various voices were always harmonious. The trio “Soave sia il vento” (Gentle Be the Breeze) — featuring Rosché, Agostino and Harrington (below) — was sublime and worth the price of admission on its own. (Below, from left, are Chloe Agostino as Dorabella, James Harrington as Don Alfonso and Cayla Rosché  as Fiordiligi in the famous Act I trio “Soave sia il vento,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW Symphony Orchestra was ably and nobly led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below) whose hiring proved to be a major coup for the university. Everything I’ve heard him conduct so far has been excellent, and this performance was no exception.

The harpsichord continuo by Thomas Kasdorf (below) was captivating in its nuance and effortlessness – very impressive.

I enjoyed the abstract unit set designed by Joseph Varga and complemented by the effective lighting designed by Zak Stowe.

In all, it was an evening primarily in which to close one’s eyes and listen.

Repeat performances, with alternating cast members, take place this afternoon – Sunday, March 1 – at 2 p.m. and again on Tuesday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Running time is about 3 hours with one intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students. For more information about the opera, the cast and the production, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2020/02/10/cosi-fan-tutte/

 


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Valentine’s Day with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in the Romantic “Double Concerto” by Brahms

February 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John DeMain, will celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The program “Romantic Encounter” examines the brashness of French composer Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire” Overture, as well as the thundering seriousness of American composer Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The husband-and-wife duo (below) of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and cellist Amanda Forsyth make their return to Madison to reprise their performance of German composer Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. (You can hear the passionate slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. See below for details.

Says maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) about the world-renowned duo: “The married team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth return to recreate their exciting interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

“One of Berlioz’s finest overtures, the exhilarating Le Corsaire opens the concert. And Aaron Copland’s majestic, powerful and lyrical Third Symphony — which is one of Copland’s great masterpieces and includes his Fanfare for the Common Man — is heard on the second half of the program.”

Eight minutes long, Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire” was composed in Nice, France, after the final break-up of his marriage. The composer resided in a tower above the sea, which explains the ruined fortification’s depiction in his overture. “Corsaire” translates to “a ship used for piracy,” but this meaning is not related to the work.

 The Double Concerto was Brahms’ final work for orchestra. He composed the concerto for his old but estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, as well as for cellist Robert Hausmann. With few recent precedents, the closest comparison to this work would be the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a soloist or small group is contrasted with an entire ensemble.

Copland’s monumental Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work perfectly reflects the spirit of post-war America and impressively holds the title of “Greatest American Symphony.” In writing this piece, Copland (below) borrowed from himself by incorporating his triumphant Fanfare for the Common Man.

ABOUT PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With a celebrated career encompassing five decades, Pinchas Zukerman reigns as one of today’s most sought-after and versatile musicians — violin and viola soloist, conductor and chamber musician. He is renowned as a virtuoso, admired for the expressive lyricism of his playing, singular beauty of tone, and impeccable musicianship, which can be heard throughout his discography of over 100 albums.

Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman came to the United States where he studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian as a recipient of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and is a recipient of the Isaac Stern Award for Artistic Excellence in Classical Music.

ABOUT AMANDA FORSYTH

The Canadian and Juno Award-winning Amanda Forsyth is considered one of North America’s most dynamic cellists. She has achieved her international reputation as soloist, chamber musician and was principal cello of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra from 1999 to 2015. Her intense richness of tone, remarkable technique and exceptional musicality combine to enthrall audiences and critics alike.

PROGRAM NOTES, TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion that takes place one hour before each concert.

Program notes are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1920/5.Feb20.html

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.  

Major funding for the February concert has been provided by NBC 15; The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; Marvin J. Levy; Fred and Mary Mohs; Nancy Mohs; and David and Kato Perlman.

Additional funding has been provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields; Boardman and Clark LLP; Forte; Barbara Melchert and Gale Meyer; and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 


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Classical music: This Saturday night, UW pianist Christopher Taylor will perform the virtuosic Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9

January 28, 2020
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ALERT: The first concert by the Verona Area Community Orchestra is set for this Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Verona Area High School’s Performing Arts Center at 300 Richard St. in Verona. A reception, with a sheet cake, will follow the concert. Admission is FREE.

Thirty-five amateur string orchestra musicians will play selections from: Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), Aaron Copland (“Rodeo”), Sir Edward Elgar (“Serenade for Strings”), Eric Whitacre (“October”), Louis Prima (“Sing Sing with a Swing”), and Peter Warlock (“Capriol” Suite).

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday, Feb. 1, will see what promises to be one of the most interesting and impressive events of The Beethoven Year in Madison.

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison’s virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will perform the solo piano transcriptions made by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9.

When he was just 12, the young Liszt — often considered the greatest pianist who ever lived — performed for and met Beethoven, who gave the boy his blessing.

For the rest of his life, Liszt (below top) promoted Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies through the keyboard. Liszt also studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven (below bottom).

These performances mark Taylor’s completion of the ambitious and monumental cycle of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions.

The Ninth or “Choral” Symphony – with the famous “Ode to Joy” finale – will also have five singers to perform the solo and choral parts. They are: Mead Witter School of Music faculty members Mimmi Fulmer and Paul Rowe (below top); and graduate students Sarah Brailey (below bottom), Thore Dosdall and Benjamin Liupaogo.

(You can hear the famous Scherzo movement played by Cyprien Katsaris and see the note-filled score for it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $20, except for music school faculty and students who will be admitted free on the night of the performance if space allows.

For more information about the tickets, parking, the performers and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-and-friends-beethoven-symphony-extravaganza/

To just purchase tickets, go to the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in the Memorial Union, call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=79084672-5D75-4981-B0A3-B135EDB97FF1

For more information about the extraordinary keyboard transcriptions, go to the Wikipedia entry and be sure to read the section on History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven_Symphonies_(Liszt)

 


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Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: UW-Madison’s first countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to perform on Sunday night as a member of the acclaimed choral group Chanticleer. Here’s how he got from here to there. Part 1 of 2 

September 30, 2019
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ALERT: Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Greg Zelek did not announce his encore after he received a standing ovation at the MSO concert Sunday afternoon. It was the final movement from the Organ Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the inaugural  concert in the new Hamel Music Center’s main concert hall, the critically acclaimed a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of the San-Francisco-based Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director. (You can hear Pagenkopf singing music by Henry Purcell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a biography of Gerrod Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf (below) is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed here as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each other. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career. So today and tomorrow, The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf.

Here is Part 1:

When were you at the UW-Madison?

I was a student at the UW-Madison from the fall of 1997 until I graduated in May of 2002. Although I received a bachelor’s degree in music education, performing ended up being a huge part of my last few semesters.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Green Bay, I always thought that if you liked music and were good at it, you were supposed to be a teacher. It wasn’t until I was a junior that my voice teacher, the late Ilona Kombrink, and I discovered that I had a viable solo voice. Although I received the music education degree, embarking on a solo career became more important to me.

What did you do and how well did your studies and performances here prepare you for the life of a professional musician?

I was very lucky to have ample opportunities for performing during my time at the UW. Singing in choirs was very important to me. For many years I sang in the Concert Choir under Beverly Taylor (below top) as well as in the Madrigal Singers under Bruce Gladstone (below bottom,, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). I think there was one semester where I sang in just about every auditioned choir.

Beverly Taylor also gave me a lot of solo opportunities in the large-scale works that the Choral Union performed: Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” For a 23-year-old to have those masterworks, along with the B Minor Mass and “Messiah,” on his resume was very impressive.

I was also lucky enough to perform with University Opera, singing in the chorus at first, but then singing a solo role in Handel’s “Xerxes” my final semester, and then returning as an alumni artist to sing Public Opinion in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and several years later Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante.” Director Bill Farlow took a lot of chances on my young, “raw” countertenor voice and gave me several opportunities to succeed.

I should also note the importance of the guidance and mentorship of Professor Mimmi Fulmer (below, performing at Frank Loyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green) after I graduated from UW. She afforded me the opportunity to sing in recital with her numerous times — usually Brahms and Mendelssohn duets. But she also was a catalyst in bringing me back to Madison several years later to sing with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Our continued relationship is actually the primary reason Chanticleer is singing in Madison this fall.

How do you feel about returning to perform at your alma mater with Chanticleer?

I’m over the moon about it. It still feels like a dream that I’m singing in Chanticleer. To be able to bring a group that I’m so proud to be a part of back to Madison feels like a great personal triumph. And to be the opening performance in the new Hamel Center (below) is such an honor!

Throughout my studies at UW-Madison, I was torn between the solo performance track and the choral career. I managed to straddle both, but my dream was always to make ensemble singing my career. Way back in the early 2000s, I heard Chanticleer sing at Luther Memorial Church, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I went down several other paths since that concert — mostly in the realm of solo, operatic singing — but it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to say I achieved my dream, and I’m coming back to place where the seed of that dream was planted almost 20 years ago.

Tomorrow: How countertenors re-emerged and were treated, the “Trade Winds” program and Pagenkopf’s future plans


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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