The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW-Madison Symphony Strings performs a forceful all-Beethoven program. Plus, the So Percussion ensemble performs Saturday night and the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra performs on Sunday afternoon.

November 6, 2015
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ALERTS: First, a reminder that the acclaimed and innovative So percussion ensemble performs this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Here is a link with information about the program, which includes the minimalism of Steve Reich, and the performers as well as tickets:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/so-percussion.html

The Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra will perform this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive. The orchestra, under the direction of Blake Walter, will perform the “Lucio Silla” Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra in D major by Michael Haydn, featuring horn soloist Dafydd Bevil; “Three Pieces in the Old Style” by Henryk Gorecki; and the Symphony No. 2 in A Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. Admission is $5, or free with Edgewood College ID.

By Jacob Stockinger

Don’t be fooled by the name.

The UW Symphony Strings Orchestra (below) is a lot more than string players who also belong to the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. And it is NOT to be confused with the All-University String Orchestra, which is made up of amateur musicians and non-music students and is conducted by Janet Jensen.

UW Symphony Strings copy

Conductor Kyle Knox (below) explains:

During one concert cycle per year, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs at Music Hall with UW Opera.  Given the space limitations of the opera pit, not all of our 75 Symphony members will play the opera.

So during this period the Symphony is split into two ensembles – Opera Orchestra and Symphony Strings.  Professor James Smith conducts the Opera Orchestra and I conduct the Symphony Strings.

Symphony Strings is a good venue for our players to perform some of the core classical chamber orchestra repertory.  Given the reduced size of the ensemble and the stylistic demands of music from the late Classical period, the Symphony Strings provides a wholly different performance challenge as compared to what they will experience in the large orchestra works performed in other concert cycles.

Playing Mozart and playing Mahler are very different experiences.  Both are difficult, but in different ways.  Last year, we did Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. This year, we’ll do two of the lesser-performed Beethoven Symphonies, Nos. 1 and 4.

As its name suggests, Symphony Strings has traditionally been a “strings only’ group.”  When necessary, recruitment for winds, brass and percussion starts with players from the Symphony Orchestra roster who are not involved with the opera. Inevitably players from other ensembles are recruited as needed to ensure that all parts are covered.  It all works out one way or another.

Kyle Knox 2

True to Knox’s words, it does work out.

A week ago Wednesday night in Mills Hall the Symphony Strings did indeed perform two symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 4. (You can hear Symphony No. 1 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Christian Thielemann in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

And sure enough, as well as strings, the orchestra included the required winds, brass and percussion.

The playing by all parties was very good. True, you could detect some unevenness. The cellos (below), for example, seemed especially polished and better in pitch or intonation than the violins, which were rough by comparison. Maybe that is because the cello section includes more accomplished undergraduates or more advanced graduate students or because the section is smaller in number or because the cello part is easier.

UW Symphony Strings cellos

Still, one has to make allowances. After all, these are students, not professionals. And it is still early in the season and school year. Most of all, Beethoven simply is not easy, not even early Beethoven.

And that was one of the highlights. The program included two lesser-known Beethoven symphonies and they went together extremely well.

Graduate student conductor Knox (below, center right), who is quite busy these days with many engagements — including the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Opera — drew sharp attacks and clean quick releases, forceful accents, sudden and dramatic dynamic shifts in tempi and volume. Those are all hallmarks of exceptional Beethoven playing.

Kyle Knox conducting UW Symphony Strings

It was enough to make The Ear hope that the group does another program with Beethoven’s two other less well-known symphonies: Nos. 2 and 8. Maybe next semester, or maybe next year.

Then again, The Ear loves the same early Beethoven (below), influenced by the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, that many other listeners skip over: the early symphonies, the early piano sonatas, the early piano trio, the early violin sonatas, the early cello sonata and the early string quartets.

young beethoven etching in 1804

And often a soloist pulls up the quality, so perhaps a faculty soloist would be a good addition.

But soloist or not, it is well worth hearing.

So The Ear highly encourages orchestral fans to go. The next performance is on Thursday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. No program is listed yet. But write the concert into your datebooks. You’ll be happy you did.

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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians successfully mines early music for its latest holiday concert of unusual offerings superbly performed.

December 15, 2014
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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 for 20 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. And he also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Trevor Stephenson (below top) and his Madison Bach Musicians (below bottom) have established a solid tradition of offering a December “holiday” concert as a triumphant antidote to the debasement of musical life that the Christmas season seems to bring inevitably with it.

MBM holiday 2014 Trevor speaks JWB

MBM holiday 2014 all usicians JWB

This time around — specifically, last Saturday night at the First Congregational Church United Church of Christ — was no exception, and even a step forward.

It was further testimony, also, of Stephenson’s thriving collaboration with Marc Vallon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music faculty. Vallon chose a good many of the selections, organized the program, conducted (below top) some of it, and played the dulcian (Baroque bassoon, below bottom on the right).

MBM holiday 2014 Vallon conducting JWB

MBM holiday 2014 Marc Vallon on bassoon JWB

In that last, Vallon was joined by his wife, Martha Vallon, on viola da gamba as well as by Anna Steinhoff on the same instrument, violinists Kangwon Kim and Brandi Berry, plus Linda Pereksta on recorder.

IMG_1307

There was also a fine vocal quartet of soprano Chelsea Morris (below, far left), alto Sarah Leuwerke (far right), tenor Kyle Bielfeld (center left) and bass Davonne Tines.

MBM holiday 2014 singers

Stephenson himself, held much of it together playing on a dandy “orgel positif” or chamber organ, made all of wood.

MBM holiday 2014 pos tive or chamber organ JWB

The program was a nicely varied mix of vocal and instrumental music, and going back further than the usually featured 18th century.

Of the vocal works, all but one were sacred in character and function, though few were specifically related to the Christmas season.

The 16th century was represented by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) in four Latin pieces for the vocal group alone.  (One was an extraordinary chromatic study, typical of the composer’s experimentation with tonic bypassing of the old modal system.) The rest of the material was effectively from the 17th century, a time of wide explorations of the new Baroque idiom.

Orlando di Lasso

After an organ fugue by Giovanni Gabrieli, the explicitly instrumental pieces came from the pens of Johann Schenck (1660-1716), and Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), with varying instrumentations—the one by Schenck for two gambas (below, with Martha Vallon on the left and Anna Steinhoff) was particularly delicious.

MBM holiday 2014 Martha Vallon left and Anna Steinhoff CR JWB

Again in varying combinations, singers and players joined in selections by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1682), Johann Froberger (1616-1692), and Johann Schelle (1648-1701), as well as by two members of the musically prolific Bach family, of generations before Johann Sebastian Bach: Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), and Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694).  The latter’s double-choir German motet provided a chance for all 11 performers to come together for a grand finale (singers in one choir, instruments in the other).

MBM holiday 2014 singers and instrumentalists JWB

German was the predominant language of these vocal works. But an interesting curiosity was an adaptation that Heinrich Schütz made (his SWV 440), fitting a German translation to Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Italian madrigal, “Chiome d’oro” (the Monteverdi version is in a YouTube video at the bottom).

All the performers were expert in their work, though the two gamba players were particularly appealing among the instrumentalists, while — with no disrespect to the others — Morris and Leuwerke were truly wonderful in their singing assignments.

What matters most is that Stephenson and his colleagues have once again demonstrated that the realms of early music have endless treasures to offer — ones most particularly welcome on the parched December scene.

A large and enthusiastic audience testified to public recognition of that fact.


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