The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The new period-instrument group Sonata à Quattro makes its debut and excels in early Baroque music

July 13, 2018
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ALERT: The All-Festival Concert that closes this summer’s 19th annual Madison Early Musical Festival will take place in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for the general public, $10 for seniors and students. Here are two links where you can find more specific information, including composers and works on the program:

https://memf.wisc.edu/event/all-fest-2018/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-2/

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.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) is becoming another powerhouse in our musical scene. Already a spark plug of the Ancora String Quartet, and now the director of the annual “Bach Around the Clock” bashes, she has organized a new ensemble, Sonata à Quattro, which made its debut on Wednesday night at Pres House.

This was done under the aegis of the current Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) as a “fringe concert” — in the manner long-established by the Boston Early Music Festival. Plus, the concert’s theme was “The Lübeck Connection,” clearly tying it to the MEMF.

The music was early Baroque, almost entirely from the 17th century.

The first half presented pieces by seven composers, including, among the better-known ones, Michael Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz, Heinrich Ignaz Biber and Antonio Vivaldi.

In the earlier pieces, the instruments were not originally specified at all — and one of them was in fact purely vocal. But the later ones clearly displayed the definition of the early string ensemble.

Indeed, the basic players — besides the backup harpsichord — were seated (below) in what is now familiar in the configuration of the latter-day string quartet, with the subtle suggestion that the earlier sonata à quattro genre was its natural predecessor.

The presence here of Vivaldi—besides Gabrieli, the only Italian among these Germans, and of later date—seemed a bit incongruous, but his familiar Sinfonia ‘al Santo Sepolcro’ actually illustrated well the mature à quattro texture. (You can hear the Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And a most impressive conclusion for this first half of the program was the fascinating eight-part Sonata in A minor by the sadly neglected Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665)—its eight-voice scoring not serving as a double choir but as a richly textured study in contrasting high with low parts.

For this first half, the core performers were Nathan Giglierano and Christine Hauptly Annin, violins; Fischer-Hoyt, viola; and Charlie Rasmussen, cello, with harpsichordist Daniel Sullivan.

They were joined along the way by gambist Phillip Serna (below top) who performed later on violone; and, for the Capricornus also violinist Thalia Coombs (below second), violist Micah Behr (below third) and viola da gambist Eric Miller (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The program’s second half was devoted entirely to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (below, ca. 1637-1707), the big star of the MEMF constellation.

First we had a Trio in B-flat from his Op. 2 collection, then a slightly French-style solo harpsichord Suite in D minor from Daniel Sullivan (below top).

Finally, we had two solo cantatas, sung by Kristin Knutson (below bottom), whose lovely soprano voice blended beautifully with the instruments.

This new ensemble will continue with concerts scheduled ahead for the coming season. But certainly this appearance represents a beautiful, and perfectly timed, introduction in a concert of true delight.

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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday 

June 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is 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.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


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

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

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmusand the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players close out their season with great performances of great piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday evening at the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season with a superlative program offering two of the greatest trios for piano and strings.

The players this time (below) were violinist Wes Luke and cellist Kyle Price, together with the group’s guiding spirit, pianist Jess Salek.

The first of the two works was the grand Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is an expansive work, full of bold ideas and adventurous spirit, while demanding much of its players.

Of its four movements, the flanking ones are full of exuberance. The scherzo has double trios or mid-sections, and is full of tricks. The third movement is a noble set of variations on a broad, hymn-like theme. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The second work, following an intermission, was the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Though composed and published very early in his output, it was revised by the composer into a distinctly new version some 35 years later. It thus offers the passion of youthfulness as tempered and given better focus by age and experience.

Also cast in four movements, it is infused with full-blooded melody, especially in the first one, but the whole piece is worked out in a richness of texture typical of the composer.

Each of the two works was given a performance of unrestricted commitment and power, in the process demonstrating the contrasts in their styles. Each was introduced by violinist Luke (below), whose comments spoke to the works and their history but also to his own feelings about them.

This in fact pointed up the degree of personal involvement these performances conveyed. It was as if the three musicians were playing as much for their own delight as for the audience’s.

That quality illustrated why this Mosaic series of programs has been so very satisfying. This is chamber music playing of the highest quality and character, some of the very best to be had in Madison.

The more reason for these Mosaic concerts to be publicized widely and broadly supported by our musical public. Few cities in our country could offer better.


Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW-Madison horn player Dafydd Bevil excel in a concerto by Richard Strauss and a theater suite by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Plus, the UW’s Perlman Trio performs Saturday afternoon

April 13, 2018
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ALERT: On SATURDAY – (not today as first mistakenly listed) –at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the annual FREE concert by the UW’s Perlman Trio — named after benefactor Kato Perlman — will perform piano trios by Franz Joseph Haydn and Robert Schumann, and a piano quartet by Johannes Brahms. A reception will follow For more information about the student performers and the full program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/the-perlman-trio/

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 photos.

By John W. Barker

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below), under conductor Kyle Knox, brought off a splendid concert on last Wednesday evening.

The opening item was the Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47, for string quartet and string orchestra by Edward Elgar.  This is a broad work of great Romantic sweep, featuring the lush textures pitting a large ensemble against a miniature one.

The largely amateur Middleton orchestra fields a very large string section. It has not yet completely fused into a suave entity, but the 30-odd players did a brave job of capturing the music’s rhetorical richness.

The soloist for the evening was Dafydd Bevil (below), a French horn player who is very active in a number of orchestras and ensembles in the Madison area while currently engaged in doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Bevil boldly chose as his vehicle the second of Richard Strauss’ two horn concertos. Neither is heard in concert very much, though the Concerto No. 1 is a little more familiar from recordings. That is a bravura piece, composed in 1882, when Strauss (below) was 18, and was written for his father, Germany’s foremost horn virtuoso.

The Concerto No. 2 dates from the other end of Strauss’s career, in 1942, the first of some wind concertos undertaken during and after World War II.  Intended to recapture his earlier instrumental style, it is a much more studied piece than its predecessor.

Bevil, clearly a player of exceptional skill and musicality, powerfully met Strauss’ showy and florid solo writing.  This is a virtuoso musician with a promising future.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to the first of what would be a number of scores Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) prepared to fit Classical Greek plays.  (RVW was himself a very accomplished master of ancient Greek.)

In 1912, inspired by the translations of Gilbert Murray, he produced music to set Murray’s English texts for three of the plays by Euripides: The Bacchae, Electra, and Iphigenia in Tauris.

Before that, however, in 1909, still early in his career, Vaughan Williams composed incidental music to a production (in Greek) of the comedy by Aristophanes, The Wasps.

From that Aristophanic score, the composer put together an orchestral concert suite of an overture and five incidental numbers. The overture itself has enjoyed some frequency of concert performances, but the full suite is little known to the public over here.

It was a clever stroke of programming that Kyle Knox (below) led the orchestra in the full suite.   This is delightful music, full of typical Vaughan Williams whimsy, inventiveness, and cleverness.  Sounding simple, it creates balances and details not easy to manage, but Knox and the orchestra performed it with dazzling flair. (You can hear the rarely performed full suite in the YouTube video at the bottom)

This is exactly the kind of enterprise that makes the Madison area’s musical life so stimulating and joyous.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

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 photos.

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.


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