The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: This Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra will perform a Russian trumpet concert and a new work by an orchestra member along with a famous Schumann symphony

February 24, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Brian Ruppert) to post:

“For our winter concert, we are excited to welcome trumpeter Jessica Jensen back to the stage on this Wednesday night, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. to perform the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Aleksandra Pakhmutova with the musicians of the Middleton Community Orchestra led by conductor Steve Kurr (below).

“I am beyond thrilled to be playing Aleksandra Pakhmutova’s Trumpet Concerto with the Middleton Community Orchestra,” says Jensen (below).

“After completing her concerto in 1955, Pakhmutova (below) — who is still actively composing and performing today at the age of 89 — cultivated a legendary career as one of Russia’s top film and popular music composers.

“Her future cinematic success was foreshadowed in her trumpet concerto as parts of it sound as though they could have been taken directly out of the score to a 1950s film. Week after week the MCO adds a new electricity to the work. I cannot wait to share this rarely performed fiery, dramatic piece with everyone.”

The program will open with “Polar Nights,” a piece composed by MCO violist Nebojsa Macura (below), who says: “‘Polar Nights’ uses a variety of instrumental colors to conjure up images of winter above the Arctic Circle. I’m tremendously honored to perform my own piece as a member of such a dedicated orchestra.”

The program will conclude with the famous Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the lyrical second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert is at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street.

General admission is $15.  All students are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available at the door and at Willy St. Coop West.

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

A meet-and-greet reception (below) follows the concert.


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Classical music: Madison Opera gives completely satisfying and nearly perfect performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Here are four reviews

November 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with performance photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I attended performances of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” presented by the Madison Opera at Overture Hall last Sunday afternoon.

Each of the operas is an hour and a quarter long. At least for “Cavalleria” (below), the time flew by while I was captivated by the good singing, excellent playing and charming staging. The opera is tightly constructed and the production flowed effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

The feckless mama’s boy Turridu was ably portrayed by tenor Scott Piper (below top) who sang beautifully throughout. His nemesis, Alfio, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes (below bottom). Mayes has an excellent voice and terrific musicianship, but he tended to overact.

The star of the show was soprano Michelle Johnson (below) as Santuzza.  Her big aria “Voi lo sapete” and her duets with Piper were rapturously dramatic. Her supple and nuanced performance had me uncharacteristically leaping to my feet and shouting “Brava!” as she took her curtain call. Hers is a voice I hope to hear again soon.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra shone throughout the performance, ably led by guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below). I cannot recall hearing before such subtle control of its orchestral voices, and the ensemble glimmered in the well-known intermezzo. (You can hear that famous and beautiful Intermezzo, used in the film “The Godfather” and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The set and costumes, the bravura singing by the chorus, and the lighting were all above expectations. It was a completely satisfying experience.

“Pagliacci” is a more troublesome work for me. It has moments of lyrical genius but also what to me seems like filler – the chorus going on too long about getting to vespers, for example.

Mayes (below) portrayed the villainous Tonio in this opera.  Although his prologue was beautifully sung, his creepy overacting was a bit too much. For example, when Nedda spat at him in contempt, he wiped the spittle from his face and then licked his hand. His final utterance “La commedia e finita” was overly dramatic and lacking irony.

Piper sang the clown Canio (below), and by the time he got to the showpiece aria “Vesti la giubba” I was nervous that he would not be able to hit all the high notes. He did hit the notes, but it will take a couple more years for this role to fit his voice comfortably.

Nedda was portrayed by sensational Talise Trevigne (below bottom). Her big aria “Stridono lassù” was sung beautifully, and the orchestra shimmered in its accompaniment. Her duet with her lover Silvio, ably sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor (below top), was another highlight of the production.

Once again, the orchestral interlude was beautifully played.

Altogether, this was almost a perfect afternoon at Madison Opera. There appeared to be a gratifyingly large number of younger people attending, which I took as a good sign for the future. (Below is the tragic final scene of “Pagliacci” with Robert Goodrich, Michael Mayes and Scott Piper.)

I look forward to the next production: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on Feb. 8 and 10. I saw it recently at Des Moines Metropolitan Opera, so I am interested to see how it will compare.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed “Pagliacci” but feel it is inferior to “Cavalleria.” Although both operas are frequently performed together, I have attended other pairings for “Cavalleria” including one with Puccini’s comic short opera “Gianni Schicchi.” That combination worked well. I wonder: Do readers have other suggestions for pairings?

Editor’s note: Everyone has an opinion. How did you and other critics find the Madison Opera productions? Leave your opinion in the COMMENTS section. And here are links to some other reviews:

Here is the review John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/music/satisfying-double-bill/

Here is the review, with a historical bent, that Greg Hettmansberger wrote for his blog “What Greg Says”: https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/madison-opera-goes-old-school/

 And here is what Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times newspaper: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/love-revenge-passion-violence-open-the-season-at-madison-opera/article_1c27e195-cc2f-5826-9502-00544b88fae6.html


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 2018
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: “Madrigal” for cello and piano by Enrique Granados

August 27, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the great losses to classical music was the premature death of the Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916, below).

Chances are that if you know the work of this composer, who died in the sinking of the Sussex during World War I, it is probably through his beautiful and lyrical  piano works such as “Goyescas” and Spanish Dances,”  many of which are frequently heard through transcriptions, especially for guitar.

But his great gift for lyricism found many outlets that remain unknown, including chamber music.

Here is one you should hear: the Madrigal for Cello and Piano (1915).

It was recently played on Wisconsin Public Radio and it reminds The Ear of the “Elegy” by Gabriel Faure.

Listen to it yourself in the YouTube video at the bottom and then leave word what you think of this work and of Granados in general.

Also let us know if there are other works of Granados that you recommend listening to, with a YouTube link if possible.

And if you like it, why not forward a link to a friend or share it on Facebook?


Classical music: Thanks to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society celebrating women, you can hear this beautiful Romance for violin and piano LIVE tonight in Madison and Sunday night in Spring Green

June 9, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight and Sunday night bring the second of six programs on the 27th annual summer series by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The theme of the whole series, along with the number 27, is “Toy Stories” and this particular program is called “American Girls” because it features so much music written by women composers — something in keeping with the timeliness and relevance of the #MeToo movement.

The first performance is TONIGHT, Saturday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m. in The Playhouse at the Overture Center. The second performance is tomorrow, Sunday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green.

For more information about the BDDS season and about buying tickets ($43 and $48), go to http://bachdancing.org or to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/classical-music-this-weekend-kicks-of-the-27th-season-of-bach-dancing-and-dynamite-concerts-with-the-theme-of-musical-works-as-toys-to-be-played-with-for-serious-fun/

Included in the “American Girls” program is the very lyrical and beautiful Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23, by American composer Amy Beach (below).

If you want a taste of what awaits you if you go, at the bottom is a YouTube video of Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who has appeared in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, performing the Romance by Beach at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert.

Pine also explains the context that includes a very famous American woman violin virtuoso, Maud Powell, whom The Ear — and probably most others –had never heard of before.

The Romance will be performed tonight and Sunday night by BDDS veteran Yura Lee (below). She is an outstanding violinist and violist who hails from New York City and performs with the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The rest of the program includes: “Chambi’s Dreams: Snapshots for an Andean Album” for flute, violin and piano by living composer Gabriela Lena Frank (below top); “Qi” for flute, cello, piano and percussion by Chen Yi (below middle); the Piano Trio in C Major, Hob. XV:27 by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the Piano Trio by American composer Rebecca Clarke (below bottom, above the YouTube video).


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
2 Comments

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.


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