The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend kicks off the 27th annual summer season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts with the theme of musical works as toys to be “played” with for serious fun

June 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Four performances on this coming Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night will open the 27th annual summer concert series of the critically acclaimed but always informal and light-hearted Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

There will be six programs in 12 concerts performed in three venues over the next three weekends.

The venues are: The Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top) at 7:30 p.m.; the Stoughton Opera House (below middle) at 7:30 p.m.; and the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $43, or $48 if you want a prime seat at the Overture Center. For more information, go to: http://bachdancing.org/tickets/season-tickets/

This opening weekend features a lot of flute music and a lot of string music plus some unusual arrangements or transcription and music by unknown women composers.

As usual, BDDS has lined up a series of impressive local talent as well as favorite guest performers, including the critically acclaimed soprano Emily Birsan (below top) and bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Also on the schedule is a Madison-based hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Blake Washington (below), for two pieces during the second weekend: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Francis Poulenc’s “The Masked Ball.” In addition, four players from the BDDS Dynamite Factory – the apprentice school of BDDS for emerging performers – will take part.

Again, as always, there is a unifying theme to the season. This year it is “Toy Stories,” playing off the idea of “playing” pieces of chamber music.

Here is a background and overview story that appeared this week in The Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/bach-dancing-and-dynamite-gets-playful-with-toy-stories/article_918d38c4-1eba-5196-822e-2b2616eddb75.html

Here is an explanation from UW-Madison graduate and San Francisco-based teacher and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below left), who co-founded, co-directs and performs in the series with retired UW-Madison and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below right):

“When we were kids, we would ride our hobby horses around the back yard pretending to be knights on a quest. We’d race our Slinkies down the stairs, cheering their contorted yet gymnastic moves. We made crazy cyborgs with our Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. The cyborgs would fight for world domination, and then they’d sit down to tea with our dolls. We cuddled our stuffed animals as we prepared for bed, confessing our deepest dreams and aspirations to them. How easily those toys sparked our imaginations and transported us to fantastic realms!

“I’m a grownup now, sort of, and while I might get a short-lived bang out of newfangled tech toys, I’ve mostly left behind the dolls, bears and rubber ducks (below) of my childhood. The “toys” that really light my fire are incredible pieces of chamber music that have their own personalities; that delight me, surprise me, cry with me, and laugh with me.

CHAMBER

“Performing chamber music is called “playing” for a good reason. Ask any artist who joins BDDS for our festival: chamber music is a magical way to recapture the spirit of imaginative play that came to us so easily as kids.

“We cherish favorite old toys — the great chamber works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, for example. Yet we can also delight in the new toys that come our way — the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (below top), Paul Wiancko (below middle) and Kevin Puts (below bottom).

“Whether these new playthings become favorite old friends, who’s to say? One thing’s for sure, we’ll never know unless we play with them.

“BDDS’s 27th season theme is TOY STORIES, and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt and I have organized each of our programs around a quirky take on iconic toys.

“To celebrate the festival’s age, we’ve also scattered various “27s” across our programs. In the spirit of imaginative play, rather than spell ing everything out, here are some clues to what you’ll hear this June.

TEDDY TALKS. Just change the motto “ideas worth spreading” to “music worth hearing” and you have our modus operandi. In this case, we have all sorts of Teddies talking to us through their music: I wonder what they’ll say.

AMERICAN GIRLS. Proud and multi-ethnic, they have been coming on strong as composers for a hundred years, and here’s the proof!

PLAY DO(H). C Major is the most malleable of keys.

GI JOE. War is no game, but it has inspired some seriously imaginative music.

RUBBER DUCKY, YOU’RE THE ONE. Sesame Street’s beloved Ernie adored his bath toy: see who else jumps into the tub.

TRANSFORMERS. I’m amazed how a couple of twists and turns can transform a few unassuming blocks into something breathtakingly complex.

“Join us June 8-24 for TOY STORIES in Madison, Stoughton, and Spring Green. We’ll play together with some irresistible toys and have ourselves some serious fun.

“With a bang!”

For the schedule of performances, with times and places, go to: http://bachdancing.org

For the full programs, including the many new or neglected composers and works to be performed, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/

For a complete list of performing and helping personnel, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/concerts/cast-crew/

And for a complete and impressive list of BDDS repertoire throughout the years, listed in alphabetical order by the composer’s last name, go to:

http://bachdancing.org/about/repertoire-through-the-seasons/

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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: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Con Vivo ends its 16th season this Saturday night with chamber music by Bartok, Beethoven, Dvorak and Brahms

May 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Con Vivo — or music with life (below) — concludes its 16th season with music of Bartok, Dvorak, Beethoven and Brahms.

The chamber music concert, entitled “Spring Romance,” includes Duets for Viola and Cello by Bela Bartok; the Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak; the Romance, Op. 50, for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the supremely beautiful Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115, by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Brahms, played by clarinetist David Shifrin and the Guarneri String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert takes place on this coming Saturday night, June 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

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

New to this concert: Con Vivo will perform in the Chapel at First Congregational Church, creating a more intimate chamber music experience for the audience.

In remarking about the concert, artistic director Robert Taylor says: “We finish our 16th season with music evocative of spring romances. The wonderful Romances for violin and piano by Dvorak and Beethoven are contrasted by miniatures for viola and cello by Bartok that highlight our members in a soloist role. The evening is capped off with the beautiful Clarinet Quintet by Johannes Brahms. What could be a better way to spend a spring evening?”

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.


Classical Music: Today is Memorial Day 2018. What music would you play to honor those who died in service to their country?

May 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2018, when those soldiers who died in war and military service to their country — in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard or whatever other branch — are honored. (Below is an Associated Press photo of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.)

Many blogs, newspapers and radio stations list classical music that is appropriate for the occasion.

But one of the very best overviews and compilations that The Ear has seen comes this year from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California.

Here is a link:

http://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2018/05/25/classical-selections-in-honor-of-memorial-day/

Another very good selection dates from last year and comes from Nashville Public Radio.

Perhaps that makes sense because Nashville is such a musical city.

Perhaps it has to do with other reasons.

Whatever the cause, this playlist gives you modern and contemporary composers and music (John Adams, Joseph Bertolozzi and Jeffrey Ames) as well as tried-and-true classics (Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar— the famous and moving “Nimrod” Variation that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin).

It even features some music that The Ear is sure you don’t know.

Take a look and many listens:

http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Finally, you can also hear some appropriate music for today on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Do you agree with the choices?

Do you like them or at least some of them? Which ones?

Which music would you choose or add to mark today’s holiday?

Leave a title and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra ends its eighth season this coming THURSDAY night with an ambitious program featuring the piano concerto by Schumann and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

May 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below): They keep testing and pushing themselves towards bigger achievements and more difficult music.

This coming Thursday night, May 31 – NOT the usual Wednesday night  performance time — the MCP will close out its eighth season with an ambitious program.

As The Ear has said many times before, both in reviews and when he named the MCO “Musician of the Year” for 2014, there is so much to praise and enjoy about the MCO:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-adult-amateur-music-makers-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2014/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/classical-music-maybe-its-back-to-the-future-the-classical-music-scene-needs-more-groups-to-act-like-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-break-down-barriers-between-performers-and-listene/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

The all-Romantic, all-masterpiece program this time features a familiar soloist, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) in the supremely lyrical Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the poignant slow movement played by Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kasdorf graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he is now doing graduate work in piano.

In addition, the MCO will close with the formidable Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Sometimes called “Beethoven’s 10th,” it will be conducted by Steve Kurr (below), the usual and very able conductor of the MCO.

The concert is on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street. It is a comfortable venue, and a good shelter from the hot weather and humidity that are predicted to overtake us for the next week or so.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15, but students are admitted free of charge — a deal that is hard to beat.

Advance tickets can also be purchased at the Willy Street Coop West.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert for the music-makers and the audience to mingle – the perfect way to end a season.

If you want to find out more about the MCO season or about how to join it or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Two performances of a FREE family concert for young children of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” take place this Saturday morning at the Goodman Community Center  

May 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, young children and their families can experience the world of classical music through the eyes and ears of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven will be portrayed by Whitney Derendinger (below) of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.

Two performances of the FREE concert will combine music, storytelling and learning for the whole family as Beethoven and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with help from students from the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music, bring to life the compositional journey of the infamous theme and first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom that has more than 53 million views — which closed the WCO season last weekend.

Here are the details:

WHERE: Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa Street, on Madison’s east side

WHEN: Saturday, May 19, 2018

CONCERT 1

9:00 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

9:30 a.m. | Performance #1 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 1

CONCERT 2

10:45 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

11:15 a.m. | Performance #2 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 2

The WCO’s Family Community Concert Series is a new, free-of-charge but ticketed educational program for children ages 4-10 and their families.

A unique format will encourage audience members of all ages to interact with classical music and each other like they never have before and serve as a new way for parents to introduce their children to classical music.

WCO will use music to inspire connections within families and communities and to foster a love for music that spans generations.

Families can also help prepare children for the experience. For more information and a preparatory study guide, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/education/wco-connect-family-concerts/concert-experience

The event is sponsored by CUNA Mutual and Findorff Construction.


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.


Posted in Classical music
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