The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The inventive and unpredictable Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society wraps up its 26th season with an impressive display of virtuosic vocal and piano music as well as hip-hop dancing

June 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson, who also took the performance photos. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season is in the books.

This weekend’s Friday performance at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater was repeated in Spring Green on Sunday afternoon and was entitled “Cs the Day,” which continued the series’ Alphabet Soup theme. It was a full-bodied program that left the audience in full anticipation for what the BDDS will bring next summer.

Bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below) — whom the Madison Symphony Orchestra featured last month in its performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem — has a wonderfully rich, dynamic voice.

In the collection of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953) — all of which were aptly named “Carpe Diem” songs in the program booklet — Jones showcased the sensitivity of his higher notes and the power of his mid-low register, all the while showing a bit of charm and theatricality. I felt at times that the rich sonorities from the piano covered up Jones’ diction, so texts of the English poems came in handy.

A surprise performance came after the art songs. The night’s entire cast of musicians — Stephanie Jutt on flute, Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Hye-Jin Kim on violins, Ara Gregorian on viola, Madeleine Kabat on cello, and Jeffrey Sykes and Randall Hodgkinson on piano — began playing an arrangement of music from Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville.

They were quickly joined by Blake Washington (below, in a  file photo), a hip-hop dancer who studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He performed a rendition – in movement – while the ensemble played. Judging from the audience’s approval, it’s safe to assume that similar collaborations would be welcome in the future.

One annual program event is a chamber music arrangement of a complete piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

This year, Jeffrey Sykes was keen on presenting the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537 (1788), called ”Coronation.” Sykes (below) labeled the work a “miracle piece” in brief remarks before the musicians listed above, minus Hodgkinson, began.

As a pianist, I sympathize with anyone who takes on such a Mozart work, since the smallest of mistakes – uneven passage work, unclear ornamentation or misplayed notes – are magnified. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to hear such an expansive work in an up-close, intimate setting like the Playhouse Theater at the Overture Center.

Judging by the audience’s reaction alone, Carl Czerny’s Grand Sonata Brillante in C minor for piano four-hands, Op. 10 (1822), proved the highlight of the program.

Not only does the work live up to its “grand” and “brilliant” title, but Sykes’ and Hodgkinson’s dexterity and acrobatics throughout were displayed – literally – for all to see.

A camera was suspended over the keyboard, and that eagle’s-eye view (below) was projected onto the large, white backdrops at the rear of the stage. Czerny’s four-hand sonata was the perfect piece to utilize this multimedia aspect, as well as show off two virtuosic pianists. (You can see and hear the first movement of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Last on the program was Cool Fire (2001) by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957). All of the performers on stage — the same cast from the Rossini on the first half of the program minus Sykes — were completely committed to the demanding and energetic score.

There were moments of athleticism in everyone’s part, and several times, the hands of Hodgkinson (below) — and his body — had to jump the length of the keyboard in an instant. His playing, in general, has always been vigorous and brawny – similar to Madison’s own Christopher Taylor. Fittingly, the two pianists studied with the same teacher, Russell Sherman.

This season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society was exceptionally consistent. Every concert featured interesting music, skilled musicians and engaging surprises.

In the first week, attendees were treated to sandwiches served by the Earl of Sandwich and the Queen of Sheba. In Week Two, Madison’s City-Wide Spelling Bee Champion proved his expertise in musical lingo. Lastly,  Week Three provided dance moves of fellow Wisconsinite Blake Washington.

It was nice to encounter many works I had never heard. In future years, I hope the BDDS’s repertoire list can be widened more to be inclusive of non-Western and female composers. Through continued diversity of programming, the BDDS should not only retain its most loyal of patrons, it might also broaden its audience base even further.

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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


Classical music: Get to know The Ear. For Christmas this year, The Ear gives readers an interview with him done by critic, radio host and blogger Paul Baker.

December 24, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Eve.

Lots of people exchange gifts today, rather than on Christmas Day.

So, does this post qualify as a Christmas gift?

I say: Why not?

But I’ll let readers decide and have the final word.

Recently, Paul Baker (below) visited The Ear and did an interview with him.

The topics ranged from personal background to taste about the music I like and dislike, and my adamant support for music education.

It may satisfy some people who want to know more about The Ear.

Paul Baker

Baker, as you may know, works in communications at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, which just marked its 50th anniversary at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Baker specializes in jazz and was a freelance reviewer for The Ear when The Ear worked as the arts editor at The Capital Times.

For years, Baker hosted “Caravan,” a show of Middle Eastern and Arabic music.

He has hosted for WORT FM 89.9 in past years.

“I have volunteered as a radio music host sporadically since undergraduate days at the University of Kentucky-Lexington,” says Baker.

Paul Baker at WSUM

Now he has a weekly show –- “Strings Only” -– that airs on Wednesdays from 1 to 2 p.m. on the UW-Madison student radio station WSUM 91.7 FM, which is quite distinguished by the awards it has won and quite varied in its offerings and scheduled programs, as you can see from the website below:

http://wsum.org

Here is a link to the 2005 background story by the UW-Madison News Service about Paul Baker:

http://www.news.wisc.edu/11801

Here is a link to Paul Baker’s music blog, which, among other things, features record reviews as well as feature stories and profiles – especially notable is the one about the prominent Madison luthier, or violin maker, Ralph Rabin (below, in a photo by Paul Baker), who also is the son of the late Marvin Rabin, the internationally famed music educator and founder-conductor of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO):

https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com

Ralph Rabin in shop 1 Paul Baker

Finally, here is a link to his blog and the interview with me, The Ear. It is entitled “The Well-Tempered Writer”:

https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/the-well-tempered-writer/

Merry Christmas!!

 


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