The Well-Tempered Ear

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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


Classical music: The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble excels again in a varied program of rarely heard Baroque vocal and instrumental music

November 30, 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-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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble offered its latest specimen of intimate Baroque chamber music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Sunday afternoon.

As always, each of the performers—six in this case—had one or two opportunities as soloist.

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Mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo (below), for instance, was featured in two solo cantatas.

One, by Giovanni Bononcini was on conventional emotional themes.

But the other was a real curiosity. By the French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, it was written for the Nativity season, and has been given a French title as “Hymn of the Angels.” But its text was no more or less than the Latin words of the Gloria section of the Mass Ordinary.

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A new member in the group, recorder player Sigrun Paust (below), delivered the Sonata No. 1 from a 1716 collection of works written by Francesco Veracini alternatively for violin or flute.

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For flutist Monica Steger (below) the vehicle was a Sonata Op. 91, No. 2, for Flute and Harpsichord duo, by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier.

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The spotlight was on viola da gambist Eric Miller (below) in another duo with harpsichord, no less than the Sonata in D Major, BWV 1028, by Johann Sebastian Bach, but Miller also participated in continuo functions elsewhere. (You can hear the Bach sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

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Likewise active in continuo work was viola da gambist Anton TenWolde (below), but he had one solo, a Capriccio for cello, by Joseph Ferdinand Dall’Abaco.

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And the harpsichordist Max Yount (below), also involved in continuo roles, presented two contrasting keyboard pieces, a Toccata by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and a Fantasie by Johann Jakob Froberger.

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For a colorful finale, Paust and Miller joined TenWolde and Steger (on harpsichord) in a Trio Sonata in F by Georg Philipp Telemann.

The artistry of these performers (below) was fully up to their own high standards, and their delight in trading off assignments to play together is palpable.

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St. Andrew’s Church (below) on Regent Street may have been a bit bigger than a Baroque salon or parlor, but still served well as a setting for this kind of amiable gentility in musical substance.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Madison Front

The group’s next Madison concert is at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. No program has been announced.


Classical music: Hearing Bach and Haydn on a clavichord proves intimate and revelatory. Plus, a FREE trombone recital is tonight and an organ recital on Sunday afternoon

November 12, 2016
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ALERT 1: Tonight at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison trombonist Mark Hetzler will give a FREE recital with pianist Vincent Fuh. Hetzler will perform a retrospective of pieces he has recorded over the past 14 years, representing five different recordings. Music from the following recordings from his Summit catalogue will be represented in this recital: American Voices (2002); Serious Songs, Sad Faces (2003); 20th Century Architects (2004); Three Views (2012); and Blues, Ballads and Beyond (2015).

Hetzler will repeat this concert on Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fond du Lac, at St. Patrick’s Church, 41 E. Follett Street, as part of the Searl Pickett Chamber Music Series.

For more information go to: http://www.markhetzler.com/

ALERT 2: Tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, Nov. 13, at 4 p.m., Dan Broner, the music director at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, will give a FREE organ recital at the FUS Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. The program features the Trio Sonata No. 4 in E minor, “Sleepers Wake!” and the Prelude and Fugue in A major by Johann Sebastian Bach; Prelude, Fugue and Variations by Cesar Franck; and “Dorian Chorale” and “Litanies” by Jehan Alain. Donations will be accepted.

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

The clavichord was an instrument of subtle importance in the 18th century. It was a kind of alternative to the harpsichord in several ways. For one, its strings were not plucked, as in a harpsichord, but hammered, as in its descendants, the fortepiano and the subsequent pianoforte or just plain piano.

The clavichord, moreover, was really an instrument for private use, for practice, study and composing work, rather than for concert use, beyond the most intimate of audiences. (You can hear a sample, using J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Local builder and restorer, Tim Farley has made several clavichords before, but this one is a relatively large one. Notable is its incorporation of wood from a number of old pianos, and some rare maple wood that had been submerged in water for a long time. Out of these elements he has created an instrument of great beauty and elegance, as well as of distinctive artistic usefulness.

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To introduce this new instrument to Madison’s musical community, Tim and his wife Renee, the reigning royalty of the remarkable Farley’s House of Pianos on the city’s far west side, chose not to do so in their usual salon, as it is too commodious and not noise-free.

Instead, they brought it to the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 6. A program of four works was played on it by David Schrader (below), an early music specialist who teaches at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

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An audience of about 45 attended. I suspect many were surprised by how tiny (not tinny!) was the instrument’s sound—much more pale than what they would have expected from a harpsichord. Modest as is the Gates of Heaven hall, it was still a bit larger than ideal. Nevertheless, the audience followed the performance intently, and I heard no complaints from anyone afterwards about inaudibility.

The music chosen was entirely from the 18th century. It began with the Partita No. 5 from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung or Keyboard Works. On these terms, we heard it as Bach might have played it himself for his own pleasure—or as a student might do for study.

The two middle works were from the other end of the century. An extended Sonata, K. 330, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would in its time have been played on the fortepiano, or even harpsichord, and sounded rather pallid this way.

But a two-movement Sonata in G minor by Franz Joseph Haydn, full of introspective feeling, worked well on the clavichord as highly personal expression.

Balancing the opening with J. S. Bach was the closing work, a three-movement Sonata in A minor (Wq49), a relatively early work by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, his most influential son. C.P.E. Bach was famous as an expressive player, and for music of inward probing.

I had hoped to hear Schrader demonstrate on this new instrument its feature of Bebung, a capacity for quasi-vibrato quivering on sustained notes that the clavichord’s action famously allowed the player to exploit. There was some of that, but Schrader explained that such an effect did not work on many pitches, limiting its possibilities.

Listeners for whom this type of instrument is unfamiliar surely found this program illuminating, while this instrument’s excellence was a further reminder of what craftsmanship Tim Farley (below, seated at the clavichord he built) has brought to Madison.

tim-farley-at-clavichord


Classical music: A Halloween treat of music for multiple pianos was served up by the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos

October 31, 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-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 provided the performance photos.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Salon Piano Series offered by Farley’s House of Pianos on Madison’s far west side continues to be a project of imagination and inspiration, with concerts offering a range of visiting performers and unusual repertoire.

It was quality and quantity in the program offered on Friday night, which was then repeated the following evening. A team of four—count ‘em, four— highly accomplished pianists, who are used to performing together as a team, gave a remarkable concert of multi-piano splendor.

The four (below, from left) are: Spaniard Daniel del Pino, Canadian Lucille Chung, Israeli Alon Goldstein and Italian Roberto Plano. Their collaborative facility is linked to utter enthusiasm in their work.

four-on-floor-players-jwb

For this program, Farley’s assembled four superlative instruments. Three are vintage Mason & Hamlin pianos, one made in 1907, the other two dating from 1914; plus a Steinway grand made in 1940. The array of these instruments—all four in the center of the salon, with circles of chairs all around for the audience—was itself an inspiration, and a fine success.

four-on-the-floor-piano-layout-jwb

The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 381, for piano four hands, a kind of “miniature” introduction, and beautifully played by Chung and Goldstein at the Steinway.

four-on-the-floor-mozart-goldstein-and-chung-jwb

“All hands,” as it were, then turned out for the remainder of the program.

A four-piano arrangement of the Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns was knowingly made in 1874 by Ernest Giraud, a contemporary and colleague of the composer.

This was followed by a more recent effort, a Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen” (1994) contrived by the distinguished Mormon musician Mack Wilbert. Both of those works built up spectacular effects of sound and color, in music certainly familiar in their original forms.

Also familiar, of course, is Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, played in this program in a four-piano arrangement by Jacques Drillon (1992). Here, I felt that such an arrangement was a bit forced. All those hands made the repeated rhythmic foundation that much more pounding and more relentless than in the orchestral original, while the colors available from the pianos could not quite match the wonderful varieties that Ravel could draw from his wider range of orchestral instruments.

Particularly disappointing, I found, was a four-piano expansion (1886) by Richard Kleinmichel of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. While the single-piano original is dense, its division among four players was mainly a matter of doubling up the players on the same parts: more analytic than the original, this treatment does not really improve anything.

As an encore, the four delivered a Horowitzian transcription of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. (You can hear Vladimir Horowitz perform it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Responding to endless audience enthusiasm, the four then sat down together at the Steinway to play a Galopp by one Albert Lavignac, written for one piano, eight hands. The four players had a ball climbing all over each other to do this novelty piece as intended.

four-on-the-floor-encore-jwb

One interesting feature of the program was the opportunity to hear and compare these four fine pianos against each other. And the four performers added to the experience by constantly rotating who played which instrument.

To my ears, the Mason & Hamlin instruments could deliver a marvelous richness and power. But the Steinway could combine those qualities with an added brilliance and coloristic range.

But, then, that was to my ears.

Whatever, a dazzling keyboard evening was had by all.


Classical music: Edgewood College’s FREE Fall choral concert is this Sunday afternoon. Plus, three sopranos sing for FREE this Friday at noon

October 20, 2016
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features sopranos Susan Savage Day, Rebekah Demure and Arianna Day in music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Corigliano, Ottorino Respighi, Richard Strauss and others. It runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Edgewood College will present its Fall Choral Concert at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive.

Admission is FREE.

The Women’s Choir and the Chamber Singers, under the direction of Kathleen Otterson (below top) and Sergei Pavlov (below bottom), will feature a wide variety of musical selections.

Kathleen Otterson color

isSergei Pavlov

The eclectic program includes the Johann Sebastian Bach-Charles Gounod setting of “Ave Maria,” heard in the YouTube video at the bottom; Sydney Carter’s beautiful arrangement of “Lord of the Dance”; and music of Pentatonix.

The Chamber Singers is the College’s premier a cappella choral ensemble, open to students of all majors. The choir performs literature from the medieval period to the 21st century, participating in multiple concerts throughout the school year.

Edgewood College Chamber Singers

The Women’s Choir performs a wide variety of traditional and modern music specifically for women’s voices.

Edgewood College Women's Choir


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