The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra closes its season with a dark and unorthodox symphony by Shostakovich as well as lighter suites by Bizet and Debussy

May 6, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) ends its winter Masterworks season this coming Friday night, May 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

And it is going out in a big, eclectic way.

The WCO will perform under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell and the WCO will be joined by two guest singers: soprano Mary Mackenzie, a former Madison resident and member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); (below top); and the Grammy-nominated bass Timothy Jones (below bottom).

Both critically acclaimed singers are familiar to Madison audiences from past appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Madison Opera, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and previous appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

They will all join in the major work that opens the concert, the Symphony No. 14, Op. 135, by Dmitri Shostakovich (below), his penultimate symphony that runs about 50 minutes and is highly unorthodox in its form.

Shostakovich wrote his symphony in 1969, and dedicated it to the British composer Benjamin Britten.

Perhaps to avoid more confrontations with the government of the USSR and perhaps to critique global events such as war,  the composer gave it a very international flavor.

Written for strings and percussion with vocal soloists, the symphony is composed in 11 movements. It is also set to poetry by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (below top), the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (below middle) and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (below bottom). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a live recording of the first movement from the work’s world premiere in Moscow in 1969.

In the late work, Shostakovich (below, in 1950) – always suspect by the Soviet state and in danger during the Stalinist Terror — seeks to portray the idea of unjust and premature death that aroused deep feelings of protest in him. Shostakovich emphasized, however, that it was not out of pessimism that he turned to the problem of mortality but in the name of life on this earth.

The concert concludes on a lighter, more upbeat note by celebrating the innocence and joy of youth in two charming suites: “Jeux d’enfants” (Children’s Games), Op. 22, by Georges Bizet and the “Petite Suite” (Little Suite) by Claude Debussy.

Tickets are $12-$80. To buy tickets and to see more information about the program and detailed biographies of the performers, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-4/


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Classical music: Mary Mackenzie, a former Madisonian now singing in New York City is seeking help to finance the first recording of composer John Harbison’s “Songs After Hours.”

January 6, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Mary Mackenzie (below), a very accomplished singer, a friend of the blog and a former Madison resident, writes:

mary mackenzie

Dear Mr. Stockinger,

It has been quite a while since you saw me perform — I suspect it may have been “Brundibar” with Madison Opera in 2000! — but I always enjoy keeping up with your blog about all things musical in Madison.

I was last in Madison in August, and gave a recital at the Token Creek Music Festival (below, and art bottom in a YouTube video). Returning home to Madison to share my life-long love of song with family and friends is always a treat for me.

TokenCreekbarn interior

I was fortunate to have an extensive musical education in Madison. I was involved in the music programs at West High School, WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the Madison Opera, and I was able to see my mother play almost every week, either with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or the Oakwood Chamber Players.

I went on to receive a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and later moved to New York City, where I received a Master of Music in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

I made my Carnegie Hall debut in the Stern Auditorium in November with the American Symphony Orchestra, singing “Warble for Lilac Time” by Elliott Carter (bel0w).

Elliott Carter

My eight years in New York City have been rich with a busy and varied singing career. I have made a name for myself as an interpreter of contemporary music – particularly art song and chamber music – and have worked with many prestigious living composers. (Below is Mary Mackenzie performing Harrison Birtwistle’s “Three Settings of Celan” with the Juilliard School’s Axiom Ensemble in a photo by The New York Times). It is one piece in particular, and the relationship I forged with the composer  John Harbison that has resonated with me.

Mary Mackenzie ii in Harrison Birtwistle's %22Thee Settings of Celan%22 with the Juilliard School's Axiom Ensemble NYT

I am writing to tell you a bit about the jazz songs, Songs After Hours, by John Harbison (below) and a unique new artistic endeavor of mine, which includes creating the first-ever recording of these works. It is my hope that you will see the value in this project, and consider supporting its production.

JohnHarbisonatpiano

Five years ago, I performed John’s Songs After Hours at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Though scored only for piano and voice at the time, John mentioned his wish to see the music developed further for a jazz combo.

Fast forward to 2012, when I had an opportunity to work with some of the most exceptional jazz musicians in New York City. Through their artistry and creativity, I knew that I’d found the group to realize John’s vision. We created original arrangements of the songs for voice and combo and are going into the studio soon to make the debut recording in 2014. The album will ultimately be released by Albany Records.

There are many financial obligations involved in making a record, and while I am applying for grant funding and running a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter, I am looking for outside donors as well.  In particular, I would like to find donors to sponsor each of the five musicians involved in the project. (Below is a photo of Mary Mackenzie performing Hector Parra’s “Hypermusic — Ascension” at the Guggenheim Museum.)

Mary Mackenzie in Hector Parra %22Hypermusic -- Ascension%22 at the Guggenheim Museum

As for the Kickstarter, the deadline is January 17, so not that far away. The link for the page is:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1472615144/the-john-harbison-project-songs-after-hours-debut.

The goal of the Kickstarter is to raise $10,000, which would go towards studio costs, engineering, mixing, and mastering.  Of course, if we exceed our goal, then that’s more money towards the overall budget. I am hoping that I can find some donors that are separate from the Kickstarter to help sponsor the musicians.

I will be applying for a grant through the Aaron Copland Fund for the remainder of the funds.

I have some of the best jazz musicians accompanying me on this project, and I believe they deserve to be compensated with at least $1,500 for their work on this record. Ideally, I’d like to give them more if funding allows. This totals at least $7,500 for five musicians.

I am hoping Madisonians will consider supporting this record.  Of course, any amount anyone can give would be a great help, perhaps even a sponsorship of one of the musicians. You and others can contact me at mmackenzie981@gmail.com or at www.mary-mackenzie.com or call me at (608) 215-9261.

Sincerely,

Mary Mackenzie


Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival provides a thought-provoking and ear-delighting look into the intersection of Shakespeare’s plays and classical music.

August 29, 2013
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has long-established a reputation for unusual programming, combining seemingly distinct genres, and exploring rare or unconventional material within them.

This season, the Festival seems to have become even more adventurous. There is the usual balancing of jazz and classical music, with more investigation of improvisatory techniques. The tiptoe into Shakespeare (below) made last year has this time has been expanded into a full and quite adventurous program, called “Shakespeare: The Bard in Songs and Scenes.”

shakespeare

The program opened with the premiere of a new composition by John Harbison (below), the co-director of the Festival who is also an award-winning composer. Called “Invention on a Theme by Shakespeare,” it takes as its “theme” a sequence of six solmization pitches (notes in a scale that are equated to syllables)  talked of by a comic character in “Love’s Labours Lost — a piece of music by the poet, if you will.  Written for solo cello with string quartet, it begins with a long solo monologue and then develops into a sequence of more animated ensemble episodes.

Thereafter, the program developed into a series of nine sets, each built around one of the plays.  In each case, a passage from the given play was recited by actor Allison Schaffer, while the songs around it were sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie), with pianist Molly Morkoski (below) accompanying stylishly.

molly morkoski

The pattern worked very well, with song composers ranging from Thomas Morley, a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, to John Harbison himself, our contemporary and friend.

What was most engaging was the frequent pairing of settings by different composers of the same texts. This practice was brought to a peak by the presentation of three of the song texts from “The Tempest,” first as set by Henry Purcell (2) and Pelham Humfrey (1), and then all by Michael Tippett. It provided fascinating insights into the varied possibilities and aesthetics of musical word treatment.

For me, though, at least as fascinating was the unit devoted to “Hamlet,” and to the sad character Ophelia. Framing Queen Gertrude’s famous description of Ophelia’s death were two complete song cycles, each setting the words of the demented songs that the poor girl sings in her madness.

One cycle, using five of those song cycles was a rarely heard and posthumously published set by Johannes Brahms (below top). The other, using only three of the texts, was a set published as his Op. 67 by Richard Strauss (below bottom).  (And not by Johann Strauss, as the program erroneously claimed, and as carefully corrected by Harbison in his astute spoken commentary.)

brahms3

richard strauss

These texts were set by each composer in German translations, which itself highlighted the Bard’s important cultural outreach beyond the English language.  (And that point was furthered by inclusion of two Shakespeare songs by Schubert, in German; as well as one by Haydn, if in English.) The Brahms settings were in a direct and rather simple style, perhaps reflecting his extensive activity in treating German folksong.

By contrast, Strauss used them to venture into almost experimental writing, in treatments that emphasized dramatic and powerfully tragic sensibilities. I wondered when anyone else would have the enterprise to put these two cycles together for comparison.

It was a measure of their total commitment that both actress and singer delivered their work totally from memory.

Allison Schaffer (below) is just beginning a career in theater, but she demonstrates a firm sense of textual integrity, vocal clarity, and stage instincts.  She will be a local product to watch for.

Allison Schaffer

Mary Mackenzie (below) has a full, ripe soprano voice of great power and beauty. She put it to use, with effective utilization of facial expression, body movement, and even gestures, to make each song an individual piece, with its own distinct mood.  This is a superb artist of whom I want to hear more.

Mackenzie

The usual printed program was supplemented this time by a set of notes by Harbison himself, giving a concise and helpful roadmap through the plays and the selections offered.

There was, alas, one fly in the ointment. Each of the spoken selections was “accompanied” by improvisations for violin and cello devised by guest composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner (below).

Everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed with me that these improvisations were intrusive, distracting, and often downright unpleasant–certainly a serious injustice to Ms. Schaffer’s work.  I know that Harbison himself is most interested in the art of improvisation, and it deserves its space; but this was not the space into which to impose it.

Andrew WaggonerThat was the one miscalculation in an otherwise splendidly artistic and thought-provoking presentation.

The Festival concludes on this Saturday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. with a program called ‘The Old and the Unfamiliar,” which features unfinished Mozart works completed by Harvard University scholar and pianist Robert Levin and by festival co-director and composer John Harbison. As always, it will take place in “The Barn” (below) off Highway 19.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 241-2525 or visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org

TokenCreekbarn interior


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