The Well-Tempered Ear

Going live! Here are some links to newly announced summer concerts and 2021-22 seasons

June 15, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Get out your datebooks.

Now that the pandemic is fast abating, at least locally, music groups and music presenters in the Madison area have been announcing a return to live music and their new seasons and summer events in a relentless way.

The Ear had been out of commission since mid-May until this week. But in any case, The Ear was overwhelmed and just couldn’t keep up with a separate post for each one.

Still, he thought it might be helpful to be able to check the dates, performers, programs, tickets and other information in one place.

Remember that the Madison Early Music Festival is no more. It has been absorbed into the regular music curriculum at the UW.

Please know that many groups – including, but not limited to, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music (below is the UW Symphony Orchestra — masked, socially distanced and virtually streamed — during the pandemic), University Opera, Edgewood College, Just Bach, Grace Presents, the Salon Piano Series, the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Bach Around the Clock, the Festival Choir of Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and the Madison Bach Musicians – have not yet released details of their new seasons.

But most of their websites say that an announcement of their new season is coming soon.

There are also some trends you may notice.

Many of the groups are raising prices and persistently seek donations as well as subscribers, no doubt to help make up for the loss of revenue during the pandemic.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra have reduced the number of concerts or start later.

Some have simply rescheduled events, like the Wisconsin Union  Theater closing its season with soprano Renée Fleming. And the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new season is largely the same one they were planning to have to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020-21.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players all have pop-up concerts and scheduled outdoor concerts in parks. Some have also scheduled individual mini-concerts or personal sessions.

If you look at programs, you will see an emphasis on Black composers and performers by almost all groups. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra has scheduled “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, below. You can hear it performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

What is most disappointing is that no group seems to have announced a special concert or event to pay homage to the public ordeal, health care workers and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ear keeps thinking a performance of a suitable requiem (by perhaps Mozart, Faure, Brahms, Verdi or Britten) or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would have been an appropriate way to start the in-person season and, at the same time, acknowledge the more than 7,000 deaths in Wisconsin and almost 600,000 deaths in the U.S. and almost 4 million worldwide as of now. Maybe even Barber’s overplayed Adagio for Strings would suffice.

Finally, very few groups seem to be offering online virtual concert attendance as a possibility for those listeners who found that they actually enjoyed at least some the  music in their own homes and at their own times.

IN ANY CASE, HERE IS WHAT HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE OR IS STILL ON TAP. CHECK IT OUT! 

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in free live and for-pay recorded concertshttps://bachdancing.org

Middleton Community Orchestra’s summer concerts at Fireman’s Park (below) in Middleton: https://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Madison Bach Musicians summer workshops (below): https://madisonbachmusicians.org/2021-summer-chamber-music-workshop/

Concerts on the Square with limited paid admission at Breese Stevens Field (below): https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square

Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers): https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/madison-symphony-orchestra-concerts/

Madison Opera and Opera in the Park (below): https://www.madisonopera.org/oitp21/; and https://www.madisonopera.org/21-22/

Wisconsin Union Theater: https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Willy Street Chamber Players (below) at Orton Park: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/2021-summer-concert-series.html

If you know of more entries or have observations to make about these, please leave word and, when possible, a link in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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The Madison Early Music Festival joins the UW-Madison School of Music’s regular program and undergoes a major revamping. There will be no more separate summer events, and the two directors will retire next spring

March 10, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

After refining the format over the past 20 years, the Madison Early Music Festival (below) has grown into a popular event that is recognized regionally, nationally and internationally. It usually takes place for about 10 days in July.

But no longer.

The Ear has received the following updates from the two co-founders and co-directors, singers Cheryl-Bensman Rowe and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe.

Curiously, no reasons or causes are given for the major changes and revamping, or for the cancellation of the event this summer.

The Ear suspects it has something to do with the lack of funding and the reorganizations and consolidations being carried out because of the budgetary effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the UW-Madison, the whole UW System and the performing arts scene in general.

But that could be completely wrong. We will probably find out more details in the near future.

For more information and background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2021/02/01/memf-school-of-music-announce-administrative-partnership/

And to sound off, please leave your reactions to the news in the comment section.

Here is the letter from the Rowes (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot):

Dear MEMF Supporters,

It is difficult to believe that February is over and spring is on its way. We hope everyone is having luck scheduling coronavirus vaccines, and that you have all stayed healthy throughout this past year. 

We are writing to give you advance notice of the latest MEMF news before you read it in an upcoming press release.

Due to programming realignment in the UW-Madison Division of the Arts, the Madison Early Music Festival will become a program of the Mead Witter School of Music, which will be our new administrative home.

After much discussion with the Director of the School of Music and the Interim Director of the Division of the Arts, the details of the move have been finalized. 

The School of Music is excited to bring MEMF into its programming, and would like MEMF to be an integral part of the academic year so more students can have an opportunity to work with professionals in the field of early music.

At this point, in order to focus on this goal, the decision has been made to discontinue the summer festival in its current (pre-pandemic) format.(You can hear a sample of that in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We know this is disappointing news, but at the same time we are excited that MEMF concerts, lectures and classes will now be offered in some capacity throughout the year. 

Although MEMF will be taking a different direction than the one we have all known and loved over the past 20 years, we are thrilled that it will continue to provide early music learning and presentation opportunities through this new collaboration.

We also want to announce that the two of us will be retiring from MEMF in the spring of 2022 and new leadership will take the helm. 

Current plans are to present a celebratory MEMF concert and workshop next spring with School of Music students and faculty and former MEMF participants and faculty.

We want all of you to know that we appreciate everything you have done for MEMF. Some of you have been involved for 21 years! 

We are grateful for your support, the friendships we have made, and all the beautiful music we have heard and made together. The success of the festival would not have been possible without each and every one of you.

This is an exciting new journey for MEMF, although different from what we have known and experienced. We hope that you will continue to be involved in MEMF in its new format, and we hope to see you in the spring of 2022!

Thank you for all your generosity in so many ways,

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, co-founders and co-artistic directors of the Madison Early Music Festival


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The Madison Early Music Festival will again be virtual this summer

December 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

After much discussion, the 2021 Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) has  decided to create an online Festival again this summer.

Whenever  possible, the University of Wisconsin–Madison recommends that events and meetings continue to be held virtually.  This was a difficult decision, but at this time it doesn’t seem safe for our MEMF community to travel to the UW–Madison campus, stay in the dorm, meet in small classrooms, and teach, sing, dance and play instruments together. 

We are currently planning what we will offer, and announcements will be publicized in February 2021. (In the YouTube at the bottom is a sample of the video that the Orlando Consort created for last summer’s virtual festival.)

For the latest news regarding classes and campus operations at the UW–Madison, please visit the COVID-19 Response website

Although it has been a difficult nine months, performing artists are creating amazing projects and producing them for virtual audiences. This includes many of our MEMF artists and ensembles, and we are looking forward  to sharing their talents with you in the future! 


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Classical music: The weeklong 21st annual Madison Early Music Festival is virtual and will be free online here and worldwide starting this Saturday

July 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the directors of the Madison Early Music Festival and the UW-Madison Division of the Arts to post:

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about public health for performers and audiences, the 21st annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) will be virtual.

It will be held as MEMF Online! from this Saturday, July 11, through next Saturday, July 18. It can be accessed at Facebook.com/MadisonEarly or madisonearlymusic.org.

All events are FREE. Lectures and special features begin at NOON (not 11 a.m., as first listed) and concerts begin at 7 p.m. (CDT). All events will be available nationwide and internationally.

The Madison Early Music Festival is internationally recognized as a top early music festival that features music from medieval, Renaissance and baroque eras from award-winning performers and distinguished faculty.

The uncertainty of the future for the arts and MEMF is daunting, but we have persevered and put together a virtual experience to showcase the musicians and faculty members that were supposed to perform this summer.

Each ensemble prepared a special video of highlights from past performances, and other faculty members recorded lectures.

Our focus was going to be “Musical Life from the Burgundian Court,” and the videos of the Orlando Consort, Piffaro, performances and lectures by Michael Allsen and Peggy Murray reflect that theme.

The other two ensembles, Trefoil and Nota Bene, sent us live concert recordings of Trecento and Italian repertoire.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are launching a fundraiser campaign to help support the artists that were to perform this season. It is critical that we help these musicians as many of them have lost substantial and irreplaceable income for the foreseeable future.

People can donate online at madisonearlymusic.org — where you can also see the concert programs — and click on the Support tab at the top of our home page. All money raised is for the MEMF musicians.

HERE IS A COMPLETE SCHEDULE OF MEMF ONLINE:

Different events will be released each day of the festival, but the content will be available after that time for later viewing.

Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m.: Orlando Consort (below) in 15th-Century Chansons from the Library of Congress

Sunday, July 12, at 7 p.m.: Piffaro, The Renaissance Band: (below) Excerpts from Burgundian Beginnings and Beyond, Philadelphia

Monday, July 13, at noon: Michael Allsen (below), Musical Life and History at the Burgundian Court

Tuesday, July 14, at 7 p.m.: Trefoil (below): Trecento Music from Bowerbird Concert Series, Philadelphia

Wednesday, July 15, at noon: T-shirt challenge!  Post a photo wearing a MEMF T-shirt!  #MEMF2020; plus Lecture by William Hudson (below) on style in singing and ornamenting Baroque songs

Thursday, July 16, noon: Renaissance Valois Dance at the Burgundian Court, a lecture by Peggy Murray (below)

Friday, July 17, at 7 p.m.: Nota Bene viol consort (below) in Sonetti Spirituali; Italian Madrigals and Divine Poetry of the High Renaissance composed by Pietro Vinci (c.1525–1584) to settings of the poetry of Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) Brandeis University in Boston

Saturday, July 18, at 7 p.m.: All-Festival Concert videos from previous festivals. There will be a sing-along of Pastime With Good Company! by King Henry VIII (below). It will be led by a virtual MEMF Faculty Ensemble. You can hear the popular song — also known as “The King’s Ballad” — in the YouTube video at the bottom. (You can download the music and lyrics at: https://memf.wisc.edu/annual/online-program/)

We hope to see everyone in 2021, and that a vaccine is approved to help us gather again as a community experiencing all the arts with musicians, artists and audiences — at MEMF in Madison and around the world.

 


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Classical music: This summer’s Madison Early Music Festival in July has been cancelled and postponed until next summer

April 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) to share:

Dear MEMF Family,

Due to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s decision to

suspend in-person courses, workshops and conferences

for the summer term because of the ongoing COVID-19

pandemic, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF)

has been postponed until July 10–17, 2021.

 

This extraordinary situation has affected all of us and

we will miss seeing you this summer. Updates will be

posted on our website as they are available.

 

 

 

As you can imagine, this was a difficult decision

but a necessary one. We will miss sharing

the Burgundian experience with everyone —

MEMF is always the highlight of our summer.

 

We already miss our community of participants

gathering together in Madison, listening to concerts

in the new Hamel Music Center, learning from

our extraordinary faculty, dancing together in Great Hall

and relaxing on the Union Terrace. (In the YouTube video

at the bottom is an excerpt from the All-Festival Concert last year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news is, we have decided to simply move

the scheduled program forward to next season.

We sincerely hope that The Good, the Bold and the

Fearless: Musical Life at the Burgundian Court

will feature the same guest artists and faculty next year

and we hope you will be able to join us in 2021.

 

In the meantime, the Madison Early Music Festival

will continue to operate. For those who have already

registered, we will contact you about issuing refunds

and answering any other questions you might have.

 

Finally, we appreciate your support — you are the reason

that MEMF continues to offer such extraordinary programming,

concerts and instruction year after year. But we appreciate it

even more now.

 

If you can make a donation to help offset some

of the costs that this year’s Festival can’t recoup,

we would be extremely grateful. Your gift today

will ensure that we can return “better than ever” next year.

 

Please stay safe and healthy,

Cheryl, Paul and Sarah

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, Co-Artistic Directors (below)

Sarah Marty, Program Director

 


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Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: A public memorial for critic John W. Barker is this Sunday afternoon. You can also help honor him with a named chair at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center

December 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that John W. Barker (below, in a photo by Mark Golbach) — a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history and  a longtime, well respected music critic, lecturer and radio host for WORT —  died at 86 on Oct. 24.

His wife Margaret writes:

Dear Friends,

There will be a gathering to remember John at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street – downtown and two blocks off the Capitol Square — this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 3:30 p.m. Please join us for memories and music. And please pass the word.

Barker wrote frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, The Capital Times and the American Record Review. He had a long, full life with distinguished careers in both history and music.

For a complete obituary, go to: https://madison.com/news/local/obituaries/barker-john-walton/article_04261147-4317-5cf2-9b6a-4098f3ffca06.html

Barker has already been honored by a special performance for him and then by the current season being dedicated to him by Middleton Community Orchestra; and by the Madison Early Music Festival, in which he was very active for many years, naming its annual concert lecture series after him.

Another way to honor Barker is to contribute to a project that is headed by local businesspeople Orange and Dean Schroeder, who founded the annual Handel Aria Competition, of which Barker was a founding board member who also served as a judge. The Schroeders write:

“Members of the Madison musical community have decided to honor John W. Barker by dedicating a seat in his memory in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. The cost is $1,500 of which $950 has already been raised. If you would like to join us, please click on this link and specify that you are making the gift in his memory: https://secure.supportuw.org/give/?id=515d53cf-e8ff-4caa-9260-c7885c66b309

John W. Barker sang in choirs and loved choral music, like the last movement, “In Paradise,” of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Thank you, John. Rest in peace.


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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: The Madison Early Music Festival announces the dates and theme of next year’s 21st annual festival

July 23, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following news update:

As things wind down after the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), we want to extend a big thank you to our visiting concert artists, lecturers and faculty, all participants enrolled in the workshops, those who volunteered, and the Friends of MEMF who provided coffee and treats every morning.

Thanks to the many concert and lecture attendees along with our promotional and financial supporters. We were pleased to welcome 103 registrants and over 2,800 people in attendance at our Concert Series, lectures, fringe concerts, and our dance event, Grand Tour Excursions.

Thank you to everyone who helped bring the Grand Tour to life during the 20th annual celebration of the Madison Early Music Festival! We look forward to seeing you July 11-18, 2020 for Music at the Burgundian Court. (You can sample some of the Burgundian court music in the YouTube video below.)


Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
8 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


Posted in Classical music
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