The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview

September 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?


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Classical music: The UW-Madison School of Music seeks volunteers to help “tune” two new concert halls all-day this Thursday and Friday in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center

September 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a chance for music lovers to combine civic duty with private pleasure.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is looking for volunteers of any kind to help “tune” the two new concert halls in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center (below), located at 740 University Avenue next to the Chazen Museum of Art’s newer wing. The official opening celebrations for the $56-million building are Oct. 25-27.

“Tuning” the hall is the term that acousticians apply to the process of adjusting the hall to how it will sound when audiences are in attendance. Halls sound very different from when they are empty to when they are occupied.

The School of Music team is looking for volunteers to help tune the larger concert hall on Thursday, Sept. 19, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and the smaller recital hall on Friday, Sept. 20, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

Volunteers can be from the university of from the general public. Two halls are involved: the larger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, which can seat up to 662; and the smaller Collins Recital Hall (below, in an architect’s rendering), which can seat up to 299.

Volunteers can study, work quietly on computers, check out the new facility, use the time as quiet time or sample for free some of the UW’s performers. Individuals and groups will be performing during the adjustments being made by the sound engineers.

Visitors will be asked to remain silently in their seats while the “commissioning” for a particular setting is in process. Breaks are scheduled for people to come and go. Start and stop times are approximate.

The musicians and kinds of music include: a symphony orchestra; a choir; brass, wind, percussion and string ensembles, including a string quartet; solo piano; and jazz.

Volunteers can attend as many sessions as they want, but they are asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to the scheduled time they wish to attend and sign up for.

For more information, including schedules and details about the kind of music to be performed and how to behave, here is a link to a story and schedules: https://www.music.wisc.edu/tuning/

If you go, use this blog’s Comment section to let The Ear know what the experience was like – even though he may also see you there.


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Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will make a LIVE RECORDING of the encore performance of the two-piano concerto it commissioned and premiered two years ago

March 21, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Want to be part of a live concert recording?

At first look, it seems like a typical — and in one way even repetitive – concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below).

But this particular concert — which is this Friday night, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – is anything but usual.

In fact, it promises to be unique and historic.

That is because the encore performance of the two-piano concerto “Double Rainbow” –- commissioned by the WCO and composed by Thomas Cabaniss for wife-and-husband pianists Jessica Chow Shinn (a Madison native) and Michael Shinn (below) — will be recorded live.

Also on the program is a string orchestra transcription of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” an entrancing work that is an emotionally intense, late Romantic work that precedes Schoenberg’s 12-tone or atonal period; and the Symphony No. 58 in F Major by Franz Joseph Haydn.

For more information and tickets ($12-$80), go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iii-4/

The same pianists, who are on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, gave the world premiere of the work under the baton of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell two years ago. (The two pianists will be interviewed by Norman Gilliland at noon on this Friday during “The Midday” show on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

It proved an accessible work that clearly pleased the audience. (In 2018, Sewell also programmed the concerto for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which he directs in California.)

“I like tunes,” said Cabaniss (below) – who will attend the performance this Friday night – when he talked to The Ear in an email Q&A from 2017 on the occasion of the world premiere.

Here is a link to that interview, which also has background information about Cabaniss and the inspiration for the concerto:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/classical-music-i-like-tunes-says-composer-thomas-cabaniss-who-talks-about-his-double-rainbow-piano-concerto-the-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-and-guest-soloists/

Then Sewell heard the same pianists play another piece by Cabaniss – “Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love” for two pianos with no orchestra or other accompaniment.

“Andrew heard them and thought the piece would be a great pairing with ‘Double Rainbow’ for a recording,” says Alan Fish, who is the interim executive director of the WCO.

A release date has not yet been set for the recording. The goal is to issue a recording in the near future, adds Fish, both in a CD format and a downloadable format. More details will be known once the Shinns have recorded “Tiny Bits,” Fish adds.


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Classical music: Who are the greatest classical composers? And how do you decide?

November 24, 2018
6 Comments

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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s holiday tradition of the “Community Carol Sing,” with organist Greg Zelek, is FREE and open to the public of all ages. It takes place in Overture Hall at 7 p.m. this Monday night, Nov. 26. No tickets or reservations are needed for the hour-long Carol Sing. For more information, including a list of the carols on the program, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing/

By Jacob Stockinger

Who are the greatest composers of classical music?

Who are the most influential composers?

And which composer is the greatest of all time?

Just as important, how do you decide? How do you pick them and make your choice?

And finally, should such choices matter?

You could ask Anthony Tommasini (below), senior classical music critic for The New York Times  — who came to the UW-Madison during the Pro Arte Quartet centennial several years ago and lectured in the Wisconsin Union Theater — who has just published a new book about those very questions.

The new book is “The Indispenable Composers: A Personal Guide” (below) and is published by Penguin Books. (It could make a nice holiday gift for a classical music fan.)

In a recent story, Tommasini – who readily admits to the project being very much a subjective game – discussed the process, which comes in the wake of his publishing a two-week project in 2011 when he named the 10 greatest composers of all time.

This time he uses (below, from left) Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Edvard Grieg as test cases for asking: Who is a great composer, and how do you know or decide what makes a composer great?

The Ear doesn’t agree with all the results, but he found it a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion, and figures you might too:

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/arts/music/anthony-tommasini-classical-music.html

Read the overview story, and then leave word if you agree with Tommasini about the greatest of all composers. (A clue is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Which composers would you include that he didn’t?

Who did he include whom you wouldn’t?

And let’s play along: Which composers would be on your own personal list of the Top 5 or Top 10 indispensable composers? And in what order?

Have fun!

And, pro or con, don’t be shy in saying what you think. The more controversial and stronger the opinion and the words, the better.

The Ear wants to hear.


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