The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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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.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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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 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.

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: Trio Celeste proves superb in its Madison debut concert at Farley’s House of Pianos

January 8, 2019
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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.

By John W. Barker

In its Salon Piano Series, Farley’s House of Pianos has been offering splendid piano recitals. But it has augmented that by bringing other musicians to join in chamber music programs, showing them at work with the vintage pianos in the Farley collection, so lovingly restored.

On Sunday afternoon, the series brought the Trio Celeste (below) from California to play just such a program. Consisting of violinist Iryna Krechkovsky, cellist Ross Gasworth and pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks, the group played a demanding program of predominantly Russian origins.

They began by reversing the two parts of the program from the printed order. Thus, the first item was the single-movement Trio élégiaque No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, composed in 1892, inspired by the Tchaikovsky work that comprised the latter half. This was followed by piano trio arrangements from the flashy “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla.

The red meat of the program, however, was the magnificent Trio in A minor, Op. 50, composed in 1882 by Tchaikovsky. This is one of the towering works of the chamber music literature, cast in quite unconventional terms: a tightly constructed but beautifully flowing opening movement, then an extended set of variations on a folksy tune.

The group (below) did resort to a frequent trick of cutting, omitting notably the challenging fugal variation. (You can hear the whole Theme and Variations movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.) But the performance was powerful and impassioned — and the more compelling for being given in a modest venue rather than in a large concert hall.  These are truly superb musicians, and it is wonderful to have them come to Madison for us.

The program made use of Farley’s Steinway Model D instrument made in 1950. During the intermission, Tim Farley (below) spoke knowingly about the instrument and its restoration. And, at the outset of things, comments on the music were given by the pianist and the cellist.

A truly memorable event in the Farley series!


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Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra impresses in a concert of “non-holiday” music for the holidays. Plus, what music is best to greet the Winter Solstice today?

December 21, 2018
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ALERT: Today we turn a  corner when the Winter Solstice arrives at 4:23 p.m. Days will start getting longer. What music would you celebrate it with? Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” section of “The Four Seasons”? Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey”? Let The Ear know in the COMMENT section with a YouTube link if possible. Here comes the sun!

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.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) proudly presented an alternative Christmas program of music, none of which had any connection whatsoever with that otherwise inescapable holiday.

It was a program of great variety, full of novelties.

It began soberly with Gustav Mahler’s early song cycle, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). This venture into German orchestral song (with a folk song background) provided symphonic inspiration for his First Symphony, the so-called “Titan,” so it unites many strains in the composer’s work.

Baritone Paul Rowe (below), of the UW-Madison’s music faculty, sang these songs. Rowe has a strong feeling for German, and he used clear diction to capture the dramatic meanings of the four song texts.

A contrast then, and a particular novelty, was the appearance of Matthew Coley (below), of the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, playing the cimbalom, the intensely Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer. 

He was joined by the orchestra for a fancy arrangement of the Hungarian dance, the popular Czardas by Vittorio Monti. (You can hear Matthew Coley play the same piece on the cimbalom in the YouTube video at the bottom.) He followed this with an encore, a hand-me-down arrangement of a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites.

More contrast came with the mini-ballet score by Darius Milhaud Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof) of 1919. This was one of the French composer’s trailblazing introductions of American jazz styles into European music.

It really works best with a small orchestra, so Middleton’s was a bit overblown for the assignment. But the elaborate solo role for violin was taken by Naha Greenholtz — concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and wife of the evening’s guest conductor, Kyle Knox, who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Associate Conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. There are some fiendish passages in the solo work, and Greenholtz brought them off with unfailing flair.

The final part of the program was devoted to the orchestral suite that Zoltan Kodaly derived from his Singspiel of 1926, Hary Janos, in which a comic Hungarian soldier upstages even Napoleon.

This is a satiric and highly colorful assemblage that offers wonderful opportunities for all of the instruments and sections to show off. And Coley was back with his cimbalom for Hungarian spice. The players clearly were having a great frolic, and conductor Knox drew the best out of them in a bravura performance.

Ah yes! Christmas without “Christmas” music. A wonderful idea to refresh the ears in December!


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo flutist Iva Ugrcic turn in polished performances of a fun program to kick off the new season

October 12, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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 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 photo.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert on Wednesday night by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below top), under the baton of Steve Kurr (below bottom), was a relatively brief but pithy one, with only three short works on the program.

The opener was Autumn, the most frequently played section of the ballet The Seasons, Op. 67 (1899), by Alexander Glazunov (below) and one of the composer’s most frequently heard pieces. It is a rondo-like sequence of varied dance movements, full of lyricism and bright colors. The Middleton players dug into it with gusto.

Second came the Flute Concerto in D Major, Op. 283, by the prolific 19th-century German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, below). He was conservative as a teacher and as a prolific composer.

Among his concertos, this one was his last, written just two years before his death. It is an engaging work, not notable for great ideas, but amiable, with a good virtuosic workout for the soloist.

The soloist was the Serbian-born flutist Iva Ugrcic, an absolute whiz of a player, and, among other things, a product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music doctoral program.  She played with super-precision and confidence, giving her instrument great personality.

Without intermission, the concert ended with the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military,” by Franz Joseph Haydn (below). It was first played in 1794 among the composer’s “London” Symphonies during his second visit to England. But it may well have been begun while he was in Vienna, for it reflects a particular fad popular there.

This was the use in orchestral writing of an adaptation of the sounds of the Turkish Janissary band. In the second movement, whose tune was taken from an earlier chamber work of his, Haydn introduced recurrently the “Turkish” instruments (two clarinets, triangle, cymbals, bass drums) with startling effect.

At the movement’s end, a trumpet call brings these novelties back for a crashing conclusion. And then, in the fourth movement’s ending, the “Janissary” instruments return for another razzle-dazzle finish. (You can hear the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It’s all great fun, and the orchestra players seemed to find their own enjoyment in it.

The MCO continues its steady growth as a polished and reliable ensemble — all 98 players!


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 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.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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