The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra leaves listeners wanting more after impressive performances of Corelli, Britten and Mozart

July 24, 2017
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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 radio show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

For six seasons past, the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below top), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky, has enriched our summers.

It seemed that last year’s offerings were to be their final one. But they returned in an “Encore!” concert on last Friday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, giving hope that this wonderful ensemble of talented young musicians will yet continue to be with us.

The program was a brave and challenging one.

It opened with the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 4, by Arcangelo Corelli. The wonderful concertos of the Op. 6 are well known from recordings, but are not that often heard in concert.

Corelli’s richly satisfying string sound was beautifully realized by MAYCO’s 22 players. The concertino was nicely set out in front of the full-ensemble tutti, and the performance was led by  concertmaster (and Utevsky’s wife) Thalia Coombs — who, to my ears, worked in some lively embellishments of her own.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century, composed for horn virtuoso Dennis Brain and Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, as well as the Boyd Neel Orchestra. It takes its point from the Italian word sera, meaning either “evening” or “night.” The six English poems Britten set to music deal with aspects of night, the horn adding comments to the tenor’s singing, all framed by a horn solo.

Utevsky led a strongly disciplined string ensemble, while horn soloist Joanna Schulz coped confidently with her terribly difficult part.

The weak link, unfortunately, was tenor Dennis Gotkowski, whose voice is neither attractive nor precise, and whose diction generally failed to project the important words clearly.

Still, in all, it proved a brave delivery of a demanding and absorbing work. (You can hear it performed in its entirety by the artists for whom it was composed, hornist Dennis Brain and tenor Peter Pears, in the historic YouTube video at the bottom.)

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, is certainly a familiar and often performed concert work. But I have to say that this student ensemble, under the baton of Utevsky, gave it a remarkably exciting performance.

This was not a performance that floated in a dark, but passively tragic gentleness. This was a performance that grabbed you by the lapels, looked you straight in the eye, and gave you a good shaking.

Its pungency was aided, of course, by the altering of the wind parts, nine of them – sitting apart (below) — against the string band that was far smaller than most orchestras muster these days.

One really could hear the different ways in which the winds spice or dialogue with the strings. But the exuberant playing that Utevsky drew from his orchestra made this a truly memorable rendition. (As a graceful gesture, Utevsky allowed his conducting apprentice and assistant, violist Brett Petrykowski, to preface the full Mozart performance by conducting just the exposition of the first movement.)

The audience was a modest one, perhaps diminished by concerns about the weather or by the limited promotion the event was given. But those present clearly enjoyed the concert, which makes many of us anticipate that MAYCO will really continue.


Classical music: Is clapping between movements appropriate or inappropriate? Do performers like it or not?

July 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Some classical music fans complain about there being too much applause and too many standing ovations these days.

And some of those fans are also really embarrassed by audience members who interrupt a performance to applaud.

Yet twice in the past week or so, The Ear heard musicians give the nod to the audience applauding or clapping between movements or pieces in a set.

One was the internationally renowned arranger and conductor of the All-Festival Concert that concluded the Madison Early Music Festival. The other was a member of the Willy Street Chamber Players.

Both musicians basically said that there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Applauding between movements, it turns out, was a frequent event in history. Disapproval nowadays can seem a kind of misplaced snooty or elitist purism.

And both performers said that the musicians love hearing applause between movements. It’s a form of reward for the hard work they do and the beauty they create or express.

True, some works seem to lend themselves to such interruptions better than others do. Applauding between the movements of a symphony, concerto or opera seems less intrusive than doing so between sections of a requiem or a song cycle.

But here is a good story on the famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City about applauding between movements. Read it and see what you think:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/why-dont-we-clap-between-movements-classical-concerts

What do you think of applause between movements or pieces?

Do you clap between movements?

If you don’t, will historical evidence and approval from the musicians themselves change your mind and behavior?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The never-fail Willy Street Chamber Players and guest artists will perform works by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich this Friday night

July 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 6 p.m., the acclaimed and adventurous Willy Street Chamber Players (below) return to their home base at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below middle and bottom), 1021 Spaight Street, on Madison’s near east side.

The 90-minute program, the second of three subscription concerts this summer — the last one is next Friday — is a typically eclectic one that mixes new music with established repertoire.

It features “The Juliet Letters” by rock star Elvis Costello (below top, in a photo by James Omaha) with local tenor Adam Shelton (below middle), who will also sing the song cycleOn Wenlock Edge” by Ralph Vaughan Williams; and pianist Jason Kutz (below bottom) in the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich. (You can hear Elvis Costello sing one of the Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There will also be a post-concert reception with east-side snacks from Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Madison Sourdough.

Admission is $15.

In addition, The Willys have inaugurated a Community Connect series to reach new audiences and perform around the city.

The Ear recently went to one of those concerts and came away grateful not only for the superb performances of great old and new music, but also very appreciative of alternative venues in the city.

But more about that tomorrow.


Classical music: The 18th annual Madison Early Music Festival concludes its look at the Spanish Renaissance with another outstanding “concept concert” featuring all participants

July 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Nobody here does “concept concerts” better than the Madison Early Music Festival.

Proof came again last Saturday night in Mills Hall when the large forces of professional faculty members and workshop student participants (both below) joined to present a comprehensive overview of Renaissance music in Spain.

The program featured various combinations, including a quartet (below) as well as choral music and instrumental music. It offered sacred and secular fare, courtly music and folk music, Latin and vernacular Spanish.

Once again, the impressive program was assembled and conducted by Grant Herreid (below top) of the internationally acclaimed Renaissance band Piffaro (below bottom), a popular and regular guest at MEMF. (You can hear Piffaro perform music from the Spanish Renaissance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As in past years, history, biography, literature, religion and music get layered on top of each other and interwoven among each other. As a formula, from year to year the concept keeps getting refined and keeps succeeding.

In this case, the narration and story line centered on the surprisingly adventurous life of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (below), who wrote the first important novel, “Don Quixote.”

Last year, the festival celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare; this year, it was the 400th anniversary of the death of Cervantes.

The Ear really likes the format. The All-Festival concert ran 75 minutes and was done without intermission. Even if you are not a big fan of such early music, the concert was varied enough and short enough to hold your attention.

Unity was provided by excerpts from various texts of Cervantes, including “Don Quixote” as well as less well-known works. Some of his words were even substituted for other texts in songs and choruses.

The chorus and soloists sounded very well rehearsed, and the large instrumental section – with all those unusual-looking early instruments like sackbuts and shawms – was exceptional.

Herreid kept an outstanding sonic balance between the vocal and instrumental forces throughout the event.

There were quite a few narrators (below) who presented the short texts by Cervantes. And they proved the only weak point. Some people just don’t seem as up to the task as others do.

Perhaps in future years, the festival could pick, say, one man and one woman to alternate in the readings. The audience would have a better sense of their identities, and the effect would be better if the narrators were chosen for their ability to project dramatically and enunciate clearly but with expression – something that proved uneven with so many different narrators taking turns.

The Ear didn’t go to a lot of the festival events. He confesses that he is more a Baroque than a Renaissance person who looks forward to next year’s theme of “A Journey to Lübeck,” with German Renaissance and even Baroque music, especially music by Dietrich Buxtehude. (The 19th annual festival will be held July 7-14, 2018.)

But this final wrap-up concert is proof that even if very early music is not your thing, you shouldn’t miss the final event.

The All-Festival concert really is a MUST-HEAR.

You learn a lot.

And you enjoy even more.

Certainly the audience seemed to agree.

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music education: Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra performs an “encore” concert of music by Corelli, Mozart and Britten this Friday night

July 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below) is a summer training orchestra dedicated to providing an intensive chamber orchestra experience for advanced high school and college musicians, ages 12-35.

“MAYCO was founded in 2011 by music director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below). The ensemble prepares a full program over the course of each of its one-week summer sessions, culminating in a public concert.

“We had planned for last summer’s “Finale!” concert to be MAYCO’s last, but at the urging of disappointed students, we decided to stage a comeback. Student response has been incredible, and we hope to keep the program alive into the future.

“This summer, we will present a single concert, “Encore!”, featuring works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Benjamin Britten and Arcangelo Corelli.

“The program of bewitching atmosphere and stark contrasts will be performed this Friday night, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

“The program opens with Corelli’s vivacious Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 4 in D major. Corelli’s Baroque concerti grossi all feature a solo group (“concertino”) of two violins and cello opposed by the full string band (the “ripieno”).

“Our performance will feature MAYCO concertmaster Thalia Coombs (below), principal cellist (and former conducting apprentice) Majestica Lor, and violinist Glen Kuenzi (a returning high school player now entering the UW School of Music, selected by audition).

“Benjamin Britten’s nocturnal Serenade, written for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and virtuoso hornist Dennis Brain, sets an enchanting array of English poetry, including texts by William Blake, John Keats and Ben Jonson.

“Set in seven movements bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue for unaccompanied horn, the work traverses a wide range of emotions and orchestral colors. Joining the orchestra will be tenor Dennis Gotkowski, a recent doctoral graduate of the UW) and hornist Joanna Schulz (below, a current DMA candidate), who plays with the Wingra Wind Quintet.

“The concert will conclude with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the so-called “Great” G minor. Long beloved for its tempestuous character and affective power, it captivates players and audiences alike with its intense chromaticism and unrelenting darkness. It is a tremendously compelling piece, and we are excited to perform it this week. (You can hear the famous opening depicted with an unusual bar graph in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Tickets are $10 cash at the door; by donation for students.

“More information about the MAYCO and its programming can be found on our website, http://mayco.org


Classical music: Madison Opera’s festive and fun 16th annual Opera in the Park is this Saturday night

July 17, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It serves as a preview of the indoor winter opera season.

But one of the summer’s major events in Madison is primarily a fun time unto itself — with outdoors picnicking and socializing, and lots of outdoor music making, some of it with the audience helping to “conduct” with glow-in-the-dark light sticks.

The Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park concert will take place this coming Saturday night starting at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s west side near the junction of Mineral Point Road and Rosa Road. (You can get a taste of the event in the YouTube video from 2010 at the bottom.)

The park opens at 7 a.m. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. The rain date is the next day — Sunday, July 23.

Here is what Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of Madison Opera, has to say about the event:

“Opera in the Park has become a Madison summer tradition since the first concert in 2002. When the weather is good, we have over 15,000 people in the audience, which is the highest per-capita attendance of any such opera event in the U.S.

“I think there are many reasons for its success, from the beautiful music to the beautiful park, and the fact that our community enjoys spending time together outside in the summer.

“We don’t make massive changes each year, but it is of course a new set of singers and a new program, so it’s a fresh musical experience.

“This year, for example, we have two arias from zarzuelas or traditional Spanish musical comedies,, including the zarzuela version of “The Barber of Seville” – which will be complemented by an aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” naturally.

“Audience members might also choose to vary the contents of their picnic basket each year – perhaps with Bizet’s “Carmen” and “The Barber of Seville” on the concert, they might want to include Spanish foods.

“I try to invite principal artists from our upcoming season when possible, so that audiences can get to know singers they can then hear in full roles later in the year.

“This summer our singers include soprano Cecilia Violetta López (below), who will be in “Carmen” in November;

tenor David Walton (below), who will be in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in February;

and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below), who will be in Daniel Catan‘s “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April.

“Baritone Will Liverman (below) is not in the upcoming season, but he has had major success here as “The Barber of Seville” and in last season’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” so I’m delighted he is able to join us this summer in the park.

“Putting on Opera in the Park is a complex production, from renting the generators and the stage to coordinating with the City Parks Department and the Madison Police.

Full Compass Systems and Bag End donate the sound system and their services to run it every year, and there are hundreds of people involved, from our production team to our volunteers, from the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) stage crew to the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“I often say that Opera in the Park is the most important thing Madison Opera does, and I think everyone involved believes that as well.

Now if only the weather will cooperate …”

For more information about Opera in the Park, including the times; the complete concert program that includes selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” on the occasion of the composer’s centennial; detailed biographies of the soloists and the guest conductor Joseph Mechavich (below); reservations for the supporters’ Prelude Dinner at 6:30 p.m.; rules about reserving seating in the park; and how to become a volunteer, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/park/


Classical music: See and hear what happens at the Metropolitan Opera just before show time. You will be amazed and entertained

July 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most illuminating and entertaining stories The Ear has seen recently came in The New York Times.

It does exactly what great journalism does: Take you to a place where you cannot go yourself.

The Times went behind the scenes at the famed Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (below) – the Met, for short – to see what was going on before show time.

And it was a lot more than opera.

There is so much to see and listen to, as suggested below in the 1966 drawing of the Metropolitan Opera House by David A. Mackay.

From the sets, props, wig and costume shops to rehearsals by the Met and the American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Orchestra and even to the kitchen and dining room, to say nothing of the classes, hallways and stage.

What emerged was an enthralling story – full of impromptu serendipity — that made good reading in the newspaper and humanized the arts. Here is the text index version (click on the picture and then on the triangle you will see):

But then The Times took advantage of the Internet to create an interactive look at the same material that features only audiovisual clips and runs 7 minutes and 21 seconds.

https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/100000005201650/what-happens-just-before-show-time-at-the-met-opera-in-12-rooms-youll-never-see.html

The final result is impressive, both for the great videography of the shoulder-held cameras and for the succinct labeling and explaining that doesn’t interrupt the flow.

What resulted should win some kind of prize or award. It should also serve as a model for what many other media – especially television – can do with various media tools at hand.

One last observation: Is The Ear the only person who thinks the driving drum soundtrack sounds suspiciously similar to the soundtrack of the 2014 Oscar-winning film “Birdman”?

What do you think about the video?

Did you like it?

Did you learn anything?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today brings the release of an impressive CD of clarinet duos and trios with UW-Madison cellist Uri Vardi and his clarinetist son Amitai Vardi

July 14, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is when another outstanding recording by UW-Madison cellist Uri Vardi gets released by Delos Records.

The recording, which features clarinet trios by Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms and clarinet-cello duos by contemporary composer Jan Radzynski, has all the makings of another winner.

For one, the repertoire is a fine mix of the late Classical style (Beethoven), the  late Romantic style (Brahms) and modernistic nationalism (Radzynski).

It is, of course, a family affair, as  you can read about here in a story about the premiere of the Concerto Duos by Radzynski:

http://news.wisc.edu/music-deepens-connection-for-father-son-performers/

The Ear also finds the playing first-rate and the sound engineering exemplary.

None of that should come as a surprise. You may recall that last year Vardi (below) and his colleague UW-Madison violin professor David Perry, along with pianist Paulina Zamora, released a recording of the three piano trios by Brahms. It was acclaimed by no less than Gramophone magazine. Here is a link to that review:

https://reader.exacteditions.com/issues/49269/page/3

The title of the new CD is Soulmates, and it seems fitting in so many ways that crisscross in many directions.

Here are notes from the educator and performer Uri Vardi:

“The title refers to friendship between composer and performer, as Jenny Kallick highlights in her liner notes.

“For his clarinet trio, Beethoven put to work the manners of a musical style that embraced the outward charm and lively sociability associated with the music of friends, interjecting his soon-to-be famous dramatic flashes only occasionally.

“Jan Radzynski (below) began his association with me in Israel, where the Vardi family from Hungary and Radzynski family from Poland first overlapped.

“Meeting once again during graduate studies at Yale School of Music, our friendship has been enriched by Jan’s project as an esteemed composer with multiple cultural ties to Poland, Israel, the US and Jewish tradition, and by my commitment as celebrated teacher and performer to collaborations across musical boundaries. Jointly, we have found ways to embrace the complexities of their origins and diaspora.

“The duo’s dedication to the entire Vardi family signals this deep connection.

“Nearly a century had passed before Brahms (below top) wrote for this same combination. Had it not been for his newly-blossomed musical friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (below bottom, 1856-1907), a star performer in the Hofkapelle Orchestra at Saxe-Meiningen, the composer might have held to his recently announced plans to retire.

“On a more personal level, I admire composer Jan Radzynski’s music. I was moved by his gift to my son Amitai (below) — who teaches clarinet at Kent State University in Ohio — and me, and the rest of our family, of the Concert Duos. He presented the work to us in 2004, and we premiered it that same year.

“Brahms is the composer who influences me on the deepest level. Following the release of my previous CD by Delos, I was eager to record the fourth Brahms trio involving the cello, and was looking for an opportunity to add it to the other three trios.

“It is the greatest joy for me to play chamber music with my son. I was happy that both he, and my colleague and friend, pianist Arnon Erez (below), were ready to embark with me on the journey of performing and recording the three compositions on this CD.

“The UW Arts Institute awarded me the Emily Mead Baldwin Award, which helped me financially in releasing this CD. The recordings were done at the Jerusalem Music Center in Israel (which gave us their wonderful facilities free of charge).

“Sound engineer Victor Fonarov, who recorded this CD and started editing it, passed away before the completion of the work. So we decided to dedicate the album to his memory.

“Here is a promotional video, with a SoundCloud clip of the Beethoven work, for the recording:

https://delosmusic.com/recording/soulmates-cello-clarinet-piano/

“And you can hear an excerpt from Radzynski’s Duos in the YouTube video at the bottom.

“Interested readers can also purchase the album directly from Uri Vardi at: uvardi@wisc.edu”


Classical music: Can playing classical music quiet rowdy or drunken customers? Some McDonald’s restaurants say it works

July 13, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is some short good news on the classic music front.

Some McDonald’s restaurants are using classical music to calm late-night customers who are rowdy or drunk and prone to fighting as they wait for their fast food.

The international phenomenon started in Glasgow, Scotland. Then it apparently spread to Stockport, Liverpool and Gloucester in the United Kingdom. Finally, it ended up at several restaurants in Australia.

Several news stories specifically mention the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (portrayed below as Ronald McDonald Mozart).

Here is a link to one of the stories, published in The New York Post:

http://nypost.com/2017/07/05/mcdonalds-is-fighting-drunk-customers-with-mozart-and-bach/

The Ear wonders if any McDonald’s restaurants in Madison or the surrounding area, or in the state of Wisconsin or even anywhere in the U.S. have tried the same strategy and had the same experience, which seems grounded in neuroscience and the effect of classical music on releasing dopamine and other stress-lessening hormones.

If you hear of any or know of any, let The Ear now.

But maybe there is also a downside. The news reminds The Ear of Muzak, the motto of which used to be, “Not just a melody but a management tool.”

Oh well. If it fosters peace, who cares what came first – the chicken or the Egg McMuffin?

What do you think about all this?

The Ear wants to hear.


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