The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Tonight is that start of six weekly Concerts on the Square with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest artists under conductor Andrew Sewell. Here’s what you need to know

June 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight marks the first of this summer’s Concerts on the Square, performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and guest artists under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The FREE community event was first proposed by famed “American Girl” dolls creator, businesswoman and philanthropist Pleasant Rowland decades ago when she worked downtown and lamented how abandoned the Capitol Square got after dark. This is the 34th season of the popular Concerts on the Square. Each concert now draws tens of thousands of listeners.

The concerts will take place on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. They run from 7 to 9 p.m. on six consecutive Wednesdays (rain dates are Thursdays). But of course people gather hours earlier to socialize and picnic.

Although pop,rock, folk and film music is often featured, tonight’s program is mostly classical – composers are Leonard Bernstein, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Otto Nicolai — and performing will  be this year’s winner of the WCO teenage concerto competition. She is violinist Emily Hauer (below) and she hails from Appleton, Wisconsin, where she has studied at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music.

Here is a link to all you need to know about tonight, from the programs and a performer’s detailed biography to vendor menus, the way to volunteer and the ground rules for concert etiquette:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-1-2/

You can see and hear a sampler of Concerts on the Square in the YouTube video at the bottom.

For future planning, here is a link to all six concerts with similar information:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Should you want to know more about WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below),  music director since 2000 — and who has also just been named the music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California — here are some profiles and interviews that make for good reading while you wait for the music to start.

Here is an excellent profile done by Sandy Tabachnik in 2014 for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/andrew-sewell-the-malleable-maestro-of-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra/

And here is some background about the New Zealand-born Sewell, who became an American citizen 10 years ago, along with links to other news stories about his latest appointment:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/tag/sewell/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/06/16/classical-music-maestro-andrew-sewell-has-been-named-the-new-music-director-of-the-san-luis-obispo-symphony-in-california-while-retaining-his-longtime-post-as-music-director-of-the-wisconsin-chamber/

And from the “Only Strings” blog of Paul Baker, who hosts a show of the same name on WSUM 91.7 FM, the student-run radio station at the UW-Madison, here is an interview with ever-gracious Sewell:

https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/author/pbaker/page/3/


Classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms join beer and brats at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s new FREE Summer Serenades starting this Sunday afternoon at the Union Terrace

June 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Spread the word but get your seat early!

This coming Sunday afternoon, beer and brats are about to mix with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at Madison’s premier summer watering hole when the new FREE Summer Serenades begin at the landmark Union Terrace (below).

The Ear likes that combination a lot along with classical concerts that last only about an hour. No details on the programs yet, but hey — for an hour you can be a sport and chance it.

“Casual high-brow” increasingly seems the way to go, especially in Madison. And fittingly, a lot of the performers chosen by the Wisconsin Union Theater have ties to the UW-Madison as professors, graduates and students.

All hour-long concerts are FREE and take place on Sundays at 5 p.m., except on July 2, which will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below)
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Named 2016 Musicians of the Year by The Well-Tempered Ear Blog, their programming is adventurous, combining beloved classics and new music from contemporary composers.

Stephanie Jutt, flute (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf, piano (below bottom)

Sunday, July 2, 2017 at 5:30

Two of Madison’s most esteemed musicians will delight with melodies from their upcoming CD and will celebrate the Fourth of July weekend with patriotic tunes.

 Isthmus Brass

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comprised of the finest professional brass players in the Midwest, Isthmus Brass (below) is Wisconsin’s premiere large brass ensemble. It has performed on concert series and music festivals throughout the Midwest.

An Evening of Arias and Art Songs

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hear a fun night of comic and classic melodies from your favorite operas. It features extraordinary lead singers from the School of Music and UW Opera Theater. Among them: Katie Anderson, soprano (below top); Courtney Kayser, mezzo-soprano (below middle); José Muñiz, tenor (below bottom); and accompanist Thomas Kasdof, piano.

Sound Out Loud and Lucia String Quartet

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sound Out Loud (below) specializes in contemporary music from the early 20th century to the present. They expand the realm of possibilities within contemporary chamber music repertoire through the implementation of experimental techniques, the incorporation of a variety of instruments and musical styles from the Middle East and Asia, innovative performance practice, and the use of live electronics.

The Lucia String Quartet (below) has been performing at events throughout the Midwest for over 15 years. The string quartet’s repertoire puts a fresh spin on many favorite rock/pop songs as well as eloquently performing classical pieces.

Summer Serenades are presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee with support from the Bill and Char Johnson Classical summer Concert Series Fund.

This is the inaugural season But Ralph Russo, director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, adds: “The 2017 Summer Serenades is a pilot program. The coordinator has put together an excellent program in a very short time and I’m confident we’ll see a good audience response.

“Assuming all goes well I’m hopeful it will continue for many summers to come. But we won’t know for certain until we do a thorough evaluation at the end of summer and determine if the donor is interested and willing to continue funding the program.”


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 2017
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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

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music: John W. Barker’s book on the history of UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet to be published this fall

June 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Local chamber music fans may recall that five or six years ago, the gala centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet, the string quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was celebrated in many ways.

After all, the Pro Arte Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) had by then become the longest-lived string quartet in the history of music.

Furthermore, the quartet and the UW-Madison established the model for chamber music group affiliations with universities, which has since become standard.

There were six commissions, later recorded in two volumes and three CDs (below) by Albany Records.

There were many free live concerts with the world premieres of the commissions.

There was a tour to Belgium (below is a concert at the Royal Conservatory), the home country of the quartet that was exiled in Madison while on tour in 1941, when Hitler invaded Belgium during World War II.

There was a terrific and impressive Pro Arte Quartet display at Dane County Regional Airport, put together with Tandem Press art publishers at the UW-Madison.

And there was a book, a complete history of the Pro Arte Quartet, commissioned from John W. Barker (below), a professor emeritus of Medieval history at the UW-Madison who is also the premier music critic in Madison. He writes for Isthmus and this blog.

Now his project, full of original research, has come to fruition and will be published in October.

Here is a link to information, including how to pre-order a copy, about the book and the author from the University of Rochester Press (Boydell and Brewer):

https://boydellandbrewer.com/the-pro-arte-quartet-hb.html

 


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
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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 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!


Classical music: Con Vivo closes its 15th season this Thursday night with a guest appearance by Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain in chamber music by Dvorak, Spohr and Martinu

May 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Con Vivo (below, in a photo by Don Sylvester), or “Music With Life,” concludes its 15th season with a chamber music concert entitled “Czech Mix” on this Thursday, May 25, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. across from Camp Randall.

Convenient parking is only two blocks west at the University Foundation, 1848 University Ave.

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera, will conduct the 14 musicians.

The program features large ensemble pieces by Czech composers Antonin Dvorak and Bohuslav Martinu, and by German composer Louis Spoor.

Specifically, the program includes two Nonets for winds and strings by Martinu (below top) and Spohr (below middle) and the Serenade for Winds and Strings, Op. 44, by Dvorak (below bottom).

NOTE: You can hear the opening movement of the Nonet by Spohr in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Tickets available in advance at Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe St. or at the door: $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and students.

This concert marks Maestro DeMain’s third engagement with Con Vivo. Music critic John W. Barker observed during Maestro DeMain’s previous appearance “…this evening was my concert of the year…”(Isthmus 12/27/13)

Audience members are invited to join the musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss the concert.

In remarking about the concert, Con Vivo’s artistic director Robert Taylor said: “We are delighted and thrilled to have Maestro John DeMain return to conduct this seldom heard, but glorious music. This is a rare opportunity to hear and see Maestro DeMain work with a small ensemble. We are sure this will once again be a concert to remember.”

Con Vivo is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.

For more information, go to: www.convivomusicwithlife.org or the group’s page on Facebook.


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker

May 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and 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

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org/reneworder)

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18


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Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 2017
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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. He also took the performance photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/)

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.


Classical music: Local music critic John W. Barker will host a fundraiser this Wednesday night for the Fifth Handel Aria Competition

April 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following information to post:

John W. Barker (below right), local music critic for Isthmus and The Well-Tempered Ear and an arts supporter extraordinaire, will present “Handel and Other Friends,” a fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition, at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, on this Wednesday night, April 26, at 7:30 p.m.

Performers will include:

  • Madison Savoyards
  • Karlos Moser
  • Trevor Stephenson of the Madison Bach Musicians
  • Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe
  • Pro Arte Quartet
  • Mosaic Chamber Players
  • Claire Powling, Rebecca Buechel and Talia Engstrom from the U.W. Madison Opera Program singing Handel duets

A highlight of the evening will be the official announcement of the seven national finalists in the Fifth Annual Handel Aria Competition (below is contestant and winner soprano Chelsea Morris).

Tickets to the April 26 fundraiser are $25 general admission, and $40 for special donor seating. They are available in advance at Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street, online at Brown Paper Tickets, and at the door.

We are delighted to have received over 100 applicants from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and 26 states — including Hawaii — for this year’s competition. Please plan to join us on Friday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall in the Humanities Building, University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music for the Fifth Annual Handel Aria Competition.

The Madison Bach Musicians, under the direction of Trevor Stephenson, will again accompany the finalists. In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, there will be a cash prize for Audience Favorite. (In the YouTube video below is Christina Kay singing from Handel’s “Joshua” during the 2016 Handel Aria Competition.)

Tickets will be $15 each and go on sale in May.

For more information, or to make a contribution, please go to www.HandelAriaCompetition.com


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


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