The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 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 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

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music: Con Vivo concludes its 15th season with an outstanding concert of music by Spohr, Martinu and Dvorak with guest conductor John DeMain

May 28, 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 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. Barker also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

For the conclusion of its 15th season, the Con Vivo chamber music ensemble (below, in a photo by Don Sylvester) called out an unusual plethora of players.

And, as it did back in 2013, it brought back conductor John DeMain (below), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera, to whip them into shape.

The program consisted of three very ample works.

The first was the Nonet, Op. 31, composed in 1813 by Louis Spohr (below, 1784-1859) — the first of its kind for this combination of strings and winds.

It’s in that no-longer-Classical-but-not-quite-Romantic idiom in which Beethoven was the big troublemaker. It is music of charm and imagination, altogether enjoyable as one appreciates the composer’s experimentation.

Following this was a contrasting work in the same form, the Nonet No. 2 (1959) by Bohuslav Martinu (below, 1890-1959). It dates from the last months of the composer’s life — note that, by coincidence, he died exactly a century after Spohr.

Using Spohr’s same combination of the nine instruments (below), it is a perky affair, in which Czech song and dance meet Igor Stravinsky, as it were. The second of its three movements is a particularly beautiful piece of coloristic writing. It can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The pièce-de-resistance was the final work, the Serenade, Op. 44 (1878), by Antonin Dvorak (below, 1841-1904).

I have to admit that this is one of my favorite works by one of my favorite composers. Composed for 11 players, it is really the composer’s tribute to Mozart, via a Romantic rethinking of the kind of wind serenades that Mozart wrote so wonderfully.

Thus, it is really a wind octet, with the addition of a third horn plus two string players (cello and double bass). Adding those two stringed instruments was a wonderful idea, allowing a significant enrichment of textures in the bass role.

The pool of 14 players involved in the program drew upon a lot of superlative talent active in the Madison area. Highly accomplished players individually, they join in full-bodied ensembles, given the added spirit brought by DeMain’s leadership.

While it would be unfair to single out individuals too much, I must say that I was greatly impressed by Olga Pomolova’s command of the fiendishly difficult violin parts in the two nonets, while I was also struck by the strong leadership of Laura Medisky, who played oboe in the nonets and first oboe in the serenade. (Valree Casey played second oboe in the serenade.)

The audience at First Congregational Church responded justly with an enthusiastic ovation at the end. Truly an outstanding concert!


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain discusses the 2017-18 season with critic John W. Barker

May 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, an interview with the Madison Symphony Orchestra‘s music director John DeMain about the next season, conducted and 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 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

Last month, I had a welcome opportunity to sit down with John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, together with his marketing director, Peter Rodgers, to discuss the orchestra’s recently announced 2017-18 concert season. (NOTE: Today is the deadline for current subscribers to renew and keep their seats. You can call 608 257-3734 or go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org/reneworder)

This meeting allowed me new insights into the various factors that go into selecting a season’s repertoire. It also gave me further appreciation of Maestro DeMain’s personality and talents.

It further revealed the unfairness of some criticism made that the coming season is “conservative” and repetitive of familiar works. In fact, his programming involves very thoughtful awareness of the differing expectations of the varied audience.

It has become customary to make the season’s opening concert a showcase for talented members of the orchestra, rather than for guest soloists.

The September program thus offers a masterpiece I particularly relish, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a symphony with viola obbligato — featuring the orchestra’s principal violist, Chris Dozoryst (below).

But the inclusion of the neglected Fifth or “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn was decided as a link to this year’s 500th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther’s launching of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517. Also on the program is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The October program contains a notable example of a familiar and popular “warhorse,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This was indeed performed by the MSO two seasons back as part of the “Beyond the Score” presentations. DeMain indicates that the close repetition is made deliberately to connect with that past event, to expand further the audiences’ understanding of the work.

He is also juxtaposing the symphony with the appearance of the acclaimed Olga Kern (below), playing the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber and with the “Mother Goose” Suite by Maurice Ravel.

The November soloist is guitarist Sharon Isbin, in two concertos, one new (“Affinity” by Chris Brubeck) and one old (Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo)  She plays with her instrument electronically amplified, something very off-putting in my experience. But DeMain notes that all guitarists do that now in concert work, and he wanted to include the guitar to bring in new and different audience members.

Inclusion of suites by Aaron Copland and Manuel de Falla – “Billy the Kid” and “The Three-Cornered Hat,” respectively — also represent popular appeal.

January will bring a triumph for DeMain: the appearance of violinist Gil Shaham (below), after 15 years of efforts to secure him. Shaham will perform the Violin Concerto by Peter Tchaikovsky.

The all-Russian program also allows DeMain to venture for the first time into “The Love for Three Oranges” suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Third Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The issue of “warhorse” repetition is raised by the First Symphony by Johannes Brahms in the February program. But DeMain points out that it has been 10 years since the MSO played the work, a significant one that richly deserves performance by now.

He is also proud to include with it the outstanding Rossini opera overture (Semiramide) and the rarely heard Cello Concerto, with German cellist Alban Gerhardt (below), by the 20th-century British composer William Walton.

DeMain admits to mixed feelings about the “Beyond the Score” presentations of music and background context, but he is confident that the one offered (one night, outside subscriptions) on March 18, about the monumental Enigma Variations, by Sir Edward Elgar, (below) will work well.

The combination in April of Benjamin Britten’s powerful Sinfonia da Requiem and Robert Schumann’s First Symphony (“Spring”) with Antonin Dvorak’s sadly neglected Violin Concerto has special meanings for the maestro. It allows the return of the greatly admired Augustin Hadelich (below) as soloist.

But it also allows DeMain’s return, for his first time since 1974, to the Schumann score, with which he had a crucial encounter in a youthful appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Finally, the May program is an unusually exciting combination of Mozart’s too-little-appreciated Piano Concerto No. 22 with soloist Christopher O’Riley (below) of NPR’s “From the Top” with the roof-raising Glagolitic Mass, featuring the Madison Symphony Chorus, of Leos Janacek.

DeMain has made important commitments to the orchestral music of Janacek (below) before this, and his advance to the composer’s great blockbuster choral work is a landmark.

Amid savoring DeMain’s thoughts on the season – which also includes the MSO’s traditional Christmas concert in early December — and his wonderful recollections of past experiences, I came to recognize more than ever the remarkable combination of talents he brings to his Madison podium.

Beyond so many conductors, DeMain has had deeply engaging phases of his career in orchestral literature (large and small), in opera and musical theater, and in chamber music, while being himself an accomplished pianist.

With the breadth of his range, he brings a particular sensitivity to the contexts and diversities of what he conducts. He has become to his musicians not only a skilled guide, but also a subtle teacher, deepening their understanding without any hint of pedantry.

It cannot be said enough how truly blessed we are to have him with us in Madison.

For more information about the 2017-18 season, including specific dates and times, and about purchasing tickets for new subscribers and renewing subscribers, go to:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/17-18


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Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra resurrect Paul Hindemith’s long-neglected 20th-century secular Requiem with fine singing and committed playing

May 2, 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 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. He also took the performance photographs below.

By John W. Barker

It is unusual that, within the space of a few days, we have parallel performances of two very untraditional Requiems, ones setting vernacular texts rather than liturgical Latin ones.

The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony(below) performed Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem For those we love” last weekend. And the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra will give us Johannes BrahmsEin deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) this coming weekend, May 5-7.

(NOTE: Here is a link with more information about the three MSO performances this coming weekend:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/classical-music-madison-symphony-orchestra-closes-its-season-with-the-german-requiem-by-brahms-and-the-american-premiere-of-charles-villiers-stanfords-1921-concert-piece-fo/)

It is hard to resist the temptation to compare them.

They were, of course, composed about a century apart, in the contexts of very different stylistic eras. They reflect very different aesthetics: High Romantic warmth for Brahms, conservative modernism for Hindemith.

The different texts chosen also determine crucial differences. Brahms selected Luther’s German translations of passages from Scripture, as a broad collage of human consolation and solace, whereas the German-born Hindemith, a naturalized American citizen who fled from Hitler’s Nazism, in a patriotic commemoration of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, chose the long poem of grieving that Walt Whitman (below) wrote over the death of President Abraham Lincoln.

The relatively concise Scriptural texts allowed Brahms to develop rich melodic and contrapuntal elaborations. Hindemith’s determination to set Whitman’s complete poem, of 208 verses in altogether irregular free verse, committed him to keep things in constantly moving continuity, with little chance for pausing and elaborating.

To be sure, Hindemith (below) was never a distinguished lyricist, for all his skills, so his writing is endless declamation by the soloists, backed by strongly cast choral statements. (You can hear famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the chorus sing the opening of the Hindemith requiem in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There are many lovely and powerful moments, but they pass by quickly and leave little of memorable expressiveness. There is much clever music here, but in sum total it is more dutiful than beautiful.

The performance in Mills Hall — I heard the one Sunday night — showed a stage packed with musicians. There were two soloists, a chorus of exactly 100 singers, and an orchestra (the UW Symphony) of 67 players, 46 of them on strings. UW choral director and conductor Beverly Taylor (below) drew from all of them deeply committed musical results.

Of the two soloists, soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below left) sang with beauty and expression, but it was baritone James Held (below right) who stole the show, with a ringing voice, superb diction, and a genuine eloquence.

The huge chorus was quite magnificent, well unified, fully serious in its enunciation, and capable of some truly musical sound — and Hindemith, though nowhere near Brahms as a choral composer, gave them some serious challenges. The orchestra sounded a bit rough at the very beginning, but settled into participating strongly in the performance.

Whatever reservations one may have about Hindemith’s score, this Whitman Requiem, one of his last important works and premiered in 1946, is a significant piece. It is far less frequently heard than that by Brahms, and so it is very good that UW choral director Beverly Taylor has brought it to our attention.


Classical music: A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” captures the Russian qualities the composer prized in this sacred music

April 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a record 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 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

For reasons, astronomical and cultural, the Western and Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Easter are frequently held at separate dates. But this year they coincide (on this coming Sunday, April 16). That gives good reason to direct attention beyond familiar Western Easter music and instead to that of Eastern Orthodoxy.

A new recording of one of the landmarks of Russian Orthodox music provides further stimulus to this.

Russian Orthodox practice did not encourage extensive new compositions, but stressed elaborate liturgical rituals built around the heritage of medieval monophonic chant, while benefiting from the fabulous style of Russian choral singing—those low basses (“octavists”) in particular.

Most composers who worked to enrich the liturgical literature were professional church musicians, but a number of “secular” Russian composers also made contributions. Notable among them were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).

It is the last of those three who has given us the music at hand, a truly memorable sacred creation. The work is his Op. 37, entitled “The Most Important Hymns of the ‘All-Night Vigil,” and commonly called “The All-Night Vigil” (Vsenoshchnogo Bdeniya) or else, more simplistically the “Vespers.”

It was composed during the early years of World War I, which was to bring about the collapse of the Russia that Rachmaninoff knew. It was performed in 1915, and two years later, amid the upheavals of the two Revolutions, the composer left his native land for good.

Rachmaninoff prized his Op. 37 above his other works; it was his proclamation of Russian identity, and after it he wrote no more sacred music. He even hoped that one section of it could be sung at his funeral. (A moving sample can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Orthodox Christian celebration of the Resurrection places emphasis on the Saturday night offices of Vespers and Matins, in a prolonged and elaborate ritual. (This Vigil array can also be used for other significant feasts beyond Easter.)

Given the lengths, Rachmaninoff chose to set his selection of “the most important hymns” for his Op. 37, for a total of 15 sections. He did follow working practice by building his settings on or around traditional chant melodies. He expected that individual sections might have liturgical usage; but he understood that the totality was a grand concert work.

The Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, or “Vespers,” has been recorded many times, often by Russian choirs, which have the musical and liturgical style in their blood. But non-Russian groups and directors have also come to recognize the transcendent beauty of this masterwork.

Noteworthy among those was Robert Shaw, the great American choral master whose recording (on the Telarc label) has been acclaimed by his admirers for its predictably superb choral sound. But Shaw and his singers lack Russian sound or spiritual sensitivity.

Other American performers have joined in: the broadly paced recording with Charles Bruffy and his Phoenix and Kansas City choirs (for Chandos) is notable. Paul Hillier’s recording (for Harmonia Mundi) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has earned great respect.

I have just been taken by the brand new release (below) from Paraclete Recordings of Massachusetts, with the Gloria Dei Cantores and members of three other choirs under the direction of Peter Jermihov.

They number 77 singers in all and, as recorded in a church setting, they make a sumptuous sound. Their emphasis is less on clarifying individual voice parts and more on relishing the rich blends that make up the total texture.

While treating the work as a grand concert piece, this performance goes beyond most others by including intonations by clerical celebrants, recalling the liturgical context that was always in the composer’s mind.

One of the striking features of this release is its thick album booklet. This is not only richly illustrated but contains an unusually penetrating background essay. Further, in presenting the Russian texts (in Cyrillic and transliteration) with English translations, it also gives useful comments section by section, for the fullest understanding of the liturgical contexts.

This is a noteworthy addition to the crowded recording picture for this sumptuous and deeply moving sacred music.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players excel in piano trios by Rachmaninoff, Ives and Mendelssohn

April 3, 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 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

The Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season on Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison with a program of three trios for piano and strings.

Rather than bypassing the fact that the date was April 1, the three players—violinist Wes Luke (below top), cellist Kyle Price (below middle), and pianist-director Jess Salek (below bottom) — embraced it as a chance for an “April Fool’s” offering, in the form of the trio composed by Charles Ives.

This is a prime example of the patriotic nose thumbing and iconoclasm in which Ives (below) delighted.

As Luke pointed out in his enthusiastic introduction, the second of its three movements is a Presto bearing the title of “TSIAJ,” an anagram for “This Scherzo Is a Joke.” (You can hear the Scherzo movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The three players dug into it with gusto and almost made its complexities and deliberate off-putting sound plausible—but, fortunately, not quite.

The first half of the program was devoted to the “Elegaic” Trio in D Minor, Op. 9, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. This work was modeled self-consciously on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, Op. 50. Each was written in memory of an admired elder colleague.

Rachmaninoff (below) was well aware of the footsteps in which he was walking—and which he could not quite fill. Cast in three movements with a lot of variations on themes, Rachmaninoff’s Trio runs to almost an hour, and sometimes suggests that the composer’s ambition outran his ideas.

As a pianist himself, Rachmaninoff made the keyboard part very much the dominant one, especially in its latter parts, with the two string players often just along for the ride. Nevertheless, it is an impressive work, and the three Mosaic musicians were quite heroic in allowing us a chance to hear it.

The program concluded with the better known of Felix Mendelssohn’s two trios, the first one in D minor, Op. 49. This is intensely serious yet beautifully melodious music, and proved just the thing to restore a sense of stability and balance.

In all of these works, the three players gave performances that would be rated as first-class anywhere. In that, they upheld the tradition that Jess Salek has created with his colleagues of making Mosaic concerts outstanding events in Madison’s chamber music life.


Classical music: Middleton Community Orchestra and cellist Andrew Briggs succeeded beautifully in music by Rossini, Dvorak and Mendelssohn but a public reading of short essays by Matt Geiger seemed out of place

March 3, 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 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. He also took the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Despite nasty weather and icy conditions, a quite substantial audience turned out for the concert Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra  (below).

steve-kurr-and-mco-marc-2017-jwb

There was an unusual element to the program.

The mostly amateur orchestra opened with an exuberant performance of Rossini’s overture to his opera Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy).

Then the normal procedures were interrupted by a local writer, Matt Geiger (below), reading two of his short essays from a recently published collection, which was sold in the lobby.

This appearance was based on his long and valiant boosting of the orchestra in his journalism, but it would have been more appropriate at some community festival than in the midst of an orchestra concert. His essays were not without wit, but had absolutely nothing to do with music.

matt-geiger-at-mco-march-2017-jwb

Back to business with guest soloist Andrew Briggs (below), a young cellist who played two miniatures for his instrument, with orchestra, by Antonin Dvorak.

Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5, is sometimes heard as a foil or filler for the composer’s great cello concerto, especially in recordings. Still less familiar is a Rondo in G minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 94. It is a work of charm and imagination.

Briggs played both of these with affectionate sensitivity. Currently finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, he is an artist with an already expanding reputation and a great future.

andrew-briggs-mco-march-2017-jwb

The second half of the concert was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation.” Composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, it was offered here as a gesture to this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of his Reformation movement with the posting of his 95 Theses. This is a score full of Lutheran symbolism, particularly with the prominent use of Luther’s chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). 

NOTE: You can hear how Mendelssohn uses the Luther hymn in the symphony’s final movement by listening to the YouTube video at the bottom.

Commentators have sometimes shrugged off this work, and it has been overshadowed in audience favor by the composer’s popular third and fourth symphonies. But it is a well-wrought score, full of fine musical interest. Conductor Steve Kurr (below) led the orchestra through a sturdy and solidly played performance, ending the concert on a triumphant note.

Steve Kurr conducting


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players mix classical and contemporary string quartets and again show off their exceptional artistry and adventurousness

January 23, 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 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 provided the performance photo.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

A Place to Be, at 911 Williamson Street, is a former store converted into a kind of near East Side clubhouse. Amid the chaos and entanglements of this weekend, it has been, indeed, the place to be for lovers of chamber music.

Just as last year, the Willy Street Chamber Players gave a concert in this intimate “chamber” on last Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The string quartet fielded from the larger group consisted of violinists Paran Amirinazari and Eleanor Bartsch (who alternated recurrently in the first and second chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges.

willy-street-chamber-players-at-a-place-to-be-jan-2017-cr-jwb

Their program mixed music of two traditional classical composers with that of two contemporaries.

Opening the program was the String Quartet in D, Op. 20, No. 2 (1772), by Franz Joseph Haydn, which was played with delightful elegance and spirit.

Later came Felix Mendelssohn’s “Four Pieces for String Quartet,” dating from 1843 to 1847 and published as a set designated Op. 81. These called for a richer playing style, which the Willys managed easily, and with strong feeling for the extensive fugal writing in two of the movements.

For more recent material, the group offered a tango tidbit by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and a recent work (2005) by Hawaiian-American, Harlem-based, crossover composer, string player and band leader Daniel Bernard Roumain.

The piece by Piazzolla (below), Four for Tango (1988, presumably scored for him by somebody else), is a kind of anti-quartet venture, requiring defiant employment of unconventional string sounds.

astor piazzolla

Even more unconventional is the three-movement String Quartet No. 5 (2005) by Roumain (below). Given the subtitle of “Rosa Parks,” it pays tribute to the heroic African-American civil rights leader who sparked the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Roumain is a classically trained musician who draws upon a range of Black music styles in his compositions. He too asks the players to break norms by using hand-clapping and foot-stomping as well as exaggerated bowings.

His musical ideas are interesting but few, and developed only in constant, almost minimalist, repetition. I was impressed, however, by his command of quartet texture, and by how the instruments really could work both together and in oppositions, especially in the long first movement. (You can hear the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is performed by the Lark Quartet, for which it was composed.)

daniel-bernard-roumain

The four Willys dug into this novel repertoire with zest and careful control. In the entire program, indeed, they displayed an utter joy in making music together. Their artistry and their exploratory adventurism mark the group, more than ever, as Madison cultural treasures, richly deserving of their designation by The Ear as “Musicians of the Year for 2016.”

They will be giving FREE and PUBLIC performances at: Edgewood High School’s Fine Arts Fest (Feb. 14); the Northside Community Connect Series at the Warner Park Community Center (Feb. 19); the Marquette Waterfront Fest (June 11); and at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green (June 12). And we await impatiently their announcement of plans for their third series of Friday concerts this July.

For more information about concerts and about the group, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Then click on concerts or events.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in its holiday concert of great non-holiday music and shows why it is attracting bigger audiences

December 26, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT 89.9 FM. For many years, he served 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

Last Wednesday night, in the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) gave what was billed as its “Holiday 2016 Concert.” Fortunately, it had no seasonal connection whatsoever—just a lot of good music.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

Opening the program was a sequence of three Slavonic Dances (Nos. 1,4 and 8) by Antonin Dvorak.  (You can hear the zesty and energetic first Slavonic Dance, performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Vienna Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The conductor this time, UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below), was able to point up lots of instrumental details that could be easily lost, and the orchestra played with a lusty vigor appropriate to the folk flavor of this music.

kyle-knox-2016

After that, Knox’s wife, Naha Greenholtz (below) — who happens to be the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, among other things—joined the MCO in Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful and very popular Violin Concerto in E minor.

naha

Greenholtz played from the score, and some occasional technical blurrings suggested that she does not yet have the piece securely in her fingers.

Still, she clearly understands the work’s shape and contours, and I particularly appreciated her flowing tempo for the middle movement, not as slow as we too often hear it. Her overall effect with this concerto was handsome and colorful.

naha-greennholtz-and-kyle-knox-with-middleton-community-orchestra

The main work was the Second Symphony by Brahms, which you can hear n the YouTube video at the bottom. This is a challenging work, especially when the important exposition repeat in the long first movement is honored, as Knox did.

Knox showed a thorough grasp of the score, and brought out its structures superbly. I found myself appreciating anew the wondrous way the composer is able to make his themes evolve to reveal unexpected beauties.

Well done, this is a richly satisfying work, and Knox drew out of his players (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) a truly satisfying performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra strings CR Brian Ruppert

The Middleton Community Orchestra continues to develop and progress. Just now, it is rather violin-heavy with 14 firsts and 18 seconds against only 9 violas and 13 cellos. These fiddlers need to blend better, and experience in working together will doubtless move them in that direction.

In general, the orchestra sounded quite healthy, fully supportive in the concerto and really accomplished in the symphony. All that is clearly the result of hard work, and Knox deserves a good deal of the credit for it.

Notable also was the large audience turnout. Middletonians can clearly be proud of their orchestra, and more and more of the Madison public is learning that a trip to the west side can be most rewarding.

MIddleton Community Orchestra audience

The MCO is by now, in its seventh season, a valuable and appreciated component of our area’s musical life.


Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
3 Comments

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 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. He also took the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

uw-choral-union-with-chamber-orchestra-and-soloists-dec-2016-jwb

Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-jwb-simon-johnson-of-myc

The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

uw-choral-union-dec-2016-soloists

The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


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