The Well-Tempered Ear

To celebrate Pride month, here are lists of LGBTQ+ composers, performers and musical ensembles 

June 27, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

June is Pride month.

And this weekend will see Pride marches and celebrations in some major cities including New York City, Chicago, Paris and Rome.

As time passes, scholars are finding out more about the LGBTQ+ composers, performers and musical groups that have been hidden by history.

And some ironies emerge. One can only imagine the response of conservative, right-wing Evangelical Christians who find out that the composer of “Messiah” – George Frideric Handel (below) — was queer, at least according to some researchers.

For most listeners, surprises abound.

Here is a good place to start. It is the very large Wikipedia entry of LGBTQ+ composers and performers, both contemporary and historical. The Ear finds it very informative. It is organized by the kind of musicians they are and the category of their sexual identity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_musicians

If you want to be more selective, try these: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/greatest-lgbtq-conductors-you-should-know/. They include Marin Alsop (below top) and her teacher and mentor Leonard Bernstein (below bottom).

Here is longer essay that focuses on lesbian conductors as well as gay men and reaches back to the Middle Ages: http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/conductors_A.pdf

And here is one with some great photos or pictures of the individuals: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/great-classical-composers-who-were-gay/

Finally, here are some of the international music ensembles – with audio samples of their performances — made up of LGBTQ+ singers and instrumentalists, including the Rainbow Symphony of Paris (in the YouTube video at the bottom, performing the beautiful Gloria by the gay French composer Francis Poulenc in a benefit Concert Against Homophobia for UNESCO): https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/best-lgbtq-classical-music-ensembles/

Inevitably, some readers will react by asking: What difference does the sexual identity of composer or performer make? All that matters, they argue, is the music.

Here is a reply to that specious argument that focuses on Yannick Nézet-Séguin (below), the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the City Symphony of Montreal. It appeared in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/15/arts/music/yannick-nezet-seguin-met-opera-gay.html

Happy Pride – this month and every day of the year!

Do you have questions, additions or comments?

Leave them below.

The Ear wants to hear.


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A busy weekend of online concerts features the UW Symphony, Edgewood College, Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Bach Around the Clock and more

March 25, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

With only a little over a month left before the academic year ends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s not surprising that the last weekend in March is very busy with noteworthy – and competing – online concerts.

Each morning at 8 through Friday, Bach Around the Clock will release the last concerts of its 10-day online festival. You can find the programs – including the finale Friday night at 7 with Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 — and link for streaming here: https://bachclock.com/concert-schedule

The weekend starts tonight with one of The Ear’s favorite groups during the Pandemic Year: the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra

Here is a day-by-day lineup. All times are Central Daylight Time:

TONIGHT, MARCH 25

The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) performs a FREE virtual online concert TONIGHT starting at 7:30 p.m.

The concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. talk about Igor Stravinsky with modern musicologist and Penn State Professor Maureen Carr as well as conductor Oriol Sans and Susan Cook, UW musicologist and director of the Mead Witter School of Music.

The program is: Suite from the opera “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell, with student conductor Alison Norris; Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra by the contemporary American composer Steve Reich; and  the Neo-Classical “Apollon musagète” (Apollo, Leader of the Muses) by Stravinsky. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an excerpt of the Stravinsky played by the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting.)

Here is the link to the talk and concert. Click on more and you can also see the members of the orchestra and the two violin soloists: https://youtu.be/2rgHQ4lWTV8

For more information about the program, including notes, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra/

FRIDAY, MARCH 26

At 7:30 p.m. the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will post for three days the third of its four online chamber music concerts (below). There will be excerpts of music by Beethoven and Brahms as well as complete works by Jessie Montgomery and Alyssa Morris.

Tickets to the online on-demand event are $30, with some discounts available, and are good through Monday evening.

Here is a link to more about this concert, including program notes by conductor and music director Andrew Sewell, and how to purchase tickets: https://wcoconcerts.org/events/winter-chamber-series-no-iii

At 8 p.m., the music department at Edgewood College will give a FREE online Spring Celebration concert. It will be livestreamed via music.edgewood.edu

The performers include: the Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Sergei Pavlov (below); the Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of Nathan Wysock; and the Chamber Winds, directed by Carrie Backman.

Highlights include the Guitar Ensemble’s performance of Wish You Were Here, by David Gilmour and Rogers Waters, and the Chamber Winds epic Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Chamber Orchestra, which will perform live, will feature Musical moment No. 3, by Franz Schubert and Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg.

SATURDAY, MARCH 27

At noon, in Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square downtown, there will be a FREE online concert. Grace Presents: “A Patient Enduring”: This early music program of medieval conductus (a musical setting of metrical Latin texts) and ballade, English lute song, and duets from the early Italian Baroque features two sopranos, Grammy-winnner Sarah Brailey (below) and Kristina Boerger, with Brandon Acker on lute and theorbo.

Here is a link: YouTube.com/GracePresentsConcerts

You can also go to this webpage for a link: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/grace-presents-a-patient-enduring/

At 3 p.m. the Perlman Trio, a piano trio that is made up of UW-Madison graduate students, will give a FREE online concert. The program includes piano trios by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. 

Here is a link to the YouTube video: https://youtu.be/EAjK0DfWB3A

Here is a link to the complete program plus background, names and photos of the performers as well as to the performance: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/perlman-piano-trio/

At 7 p.m. the UW-Madison’s Wingra Wind Quntet (below) will perform a FREE pre-recorded online concert. Here is a link to the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bn7eobSnfr8

And here is a link to the page with more background information about the faculty members – including bassoonist Marc Vallon (below top) and flutist Conor Nelson (below bottom) – and to the complete program: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wingra-wind-quintet/

SUNDAY, MARCH 28

From 4 to 5:30 p.m., guest mezzo-soprano Julia Ubank (below) will give a free online recital with pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

The program features songs by Mahler, Debussy, deFalla, Jake Heggie and Ellen Cogen.

Here is the complete program plus a link to the recital: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/julia-urbank-voice-recital/

From 4 to 5:30 p.m. the Madison Opera will host a Opera Up Close cocktail hour discussion with four general directors of opera companies. Here is the website’s description:

“Four opera general directors walk into a chat room…. Stepping outside the Madison Opera family, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) is joined by three colleagues: Michael Egel of Des Moines Metro Opera, Ashley Magnus of Chicago Opera Theater, and Lee Anne Myslewski of Wolf Trap Opera.

“From how they got into opera, to the ups and downs of running an opera company, their favorite productions, funniest moments, and more, it will be a unique and entertaining afternoon.

Here is a link with more information including the cost of a subscription: https://www.madisonopera.org/class/general-directors/?wcs_timestamp=1616947200

At 6 p.m., Rachel Reese, a UW-Madison doctoral student in violin, will give a lecture-concert about the Violin Concerto No. 2 by the rediscovered African-American composer Florence Price (below). She will be accompanied by pianist Aubrie Jacobson.

Here is a link to the concert plus background about Rachel Reese: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/rachel-reese-lecture-recital/


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Starting TODAY, the First Unitarian Society of Madison offers three free, online mini-concerts at noon on Fridays to celebrate Women’s History Month

March 12, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about three free, online mini-concerts to celebrate Women’s History Month through the Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

The concerts start today:

UPCOMING PERFORMANCES

•   To celebrate Women’s History Month, the First Unitarian Society of Madison will present three Friday Noon Musicales during March. 

•   All three will be guest produced by Iva Ugrcic. 

•   Iva Ugrcic (below) is Founding Artistic Director of the Madison-based LunART Festival, which supports, inspires, promotes and celebrates women in the arts.  

•   Each program will feature highlights from past LunART Festival performances.

•   Each program will be approximately 45 minutes long.

DATES AND PROGRAMS

Each video will become available at noon on the indicated date, and will remain available for viewing in perpetuity.

This Friday, March 12 — Works by living composers Jocelyn Hagen, Salina Fisher and Missy Mazzoli (below top), as well as Romantic-era composer Clara Schumann (below bottom, Getty Images).  Specific titles are not named.

Performers include: Iva Ugrcic, flute; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Macaluso, trombone; Elena Ross and Todd Hammes, percussion; Kyle Johnson, Jason Kutz, Satoko Hayami and Yana Avedyan, piano; Beth Larson and Isabella Lippi, violin; Karl Lavine, cello (below); ARTemis Ensemble.

Friday, March 19 — Works by living composers Linda Kachelmeier, Elsa M’bala, Doina Rotaru (below top) and Eunike Tanzil, as well as Medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen (below bottom) and Romantic-era Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. Specific works are not named. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear flutist Iva Ugrcic play Doina Rotaru’s haunting “Japanese Garden.”)

Performers include: Iva Ugrcic, flute; Jose Ignacio Santos Aquino, clarinet; Midori Samson, bassoon; Breta Saganski and Dave Alcorn, percussion; Satoko Hayami (below), Jason Kutz and Eunike Tanzil, piano; ARTemis Ensemble

Friday, March 26 — Alexandra Olsavsky, Edna Alejandra Longoria, Kate Soper and Jenni Brandon as well as post-Romantic era American composer Amy Beach (below bottom). Specific pieces are not named. 

Performers include: ARTemis Ensemble; a string quartet with violinists Isabella Lippi and Laura Burns, violist Fabio Saggin, and cellist Mark Bridges (below); Jeff Takaki, bass; Vincent Fuh and Kyle Johnson, piano; Jennifer Lien, soprano; Iva Ugrcic, flute.

THREE OPTIONS FOR ATTENDING

•   Website — https://www.fusmadison.org/musicales

•   Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/fusmadison

•   YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/fusmadison > “Playlists” > “Music at FUS”

ABOUT THE “FRIDAY NOON MUSICALES” RECITAL SERIES

•   The Friday Noon Musicales at First Unitarian Society is a free noon-hour recital series offered as a gift to the community. 

•   Founded in 1971, 2020-2021 is the series’ 50th season. 

•   The series has featured some of the finest musicians in the Midwest, who flock to perform in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium.

•   The music performed is mostly classical, but folk, jazz and musical theater styles are presented on occasion.

•   During the pandemic, the Musicales have largely been on hiatus.

JUSTICE AND MUSIC INITIATIVE (JAM)

•   The Justice And Music Initiative (JAM) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison represents a commitment to more socially equitable and earth-friendly music practices. 

•   This commitment includes music performed on our campus, both for worship and non-worship events. 

•   To help achieve our goal, we recognize and celebrate recognition days and months with our musical selections, such as Hispanic Heritage Month (9/15–10/15), LGBT History Month (October); Native American Indian Heritage Month (November), Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), and African-American Music Appreciation Month (prev. Black Music Month; June).


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Classical music: The weeklong 21st annual Madison Early Music Festival is virtual and will be free online here and worldwide starting this Saturday

July 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the directors of the Madison Early Music Festival and the UW-Madison Division of the Arts to post:

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about public health for performers and audiences, the 21st annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) will be virtual.

It will be held as MEMF Online! from this Saturday, July 11, through next Saturday, July 18. It can be accessed at Facebook.com/MadisonEarly or madisonearlymusic.org.

All events are FREE. Lectures and special features begin at NOON (not 11 a.m., as first listed) and concerts begin at 7 p.m. (CDT). All events will be available nationwide and internationally.

The Madison Early Music Festival is internationally recognized as a top early music festival that features music from medieval, Renaissance and baroque eras from award-winning performers and distinguished faculty.

The uncertainty of the future for the arts and MEMF is daunting, but we have persevered and put together a virtual experience to showcase the musicians and faculty members that were supposed to perform this summer.

Each ensemble prepared a special video of highlights from past performances, and other faculty members recorded lectures.

Our focus was going to be “Musical Life from the Burgundian Court,” and the videos of the Orlando Consort, Piffaro, performances and lectures by Michael Allsen and Peggy Murray reflect that theme.

The other two ensembles, Trefoil and Nota Bene, sent us live concert recordings of Trecento and Italian repertoire.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are launching a fundraiser campaign to help support the artists that were to perform this season. It is critical that we help these musicians as many of them have lost substantial and irreplaceable income for the foreseeable future.

People can donate online at madisonearlymusic.org — where you can also see the concert programs — and click on the Support tab at the top of our home page. All money raised is for the MEMF musicians.

HERE IS A COMPLETE SCHEDULE OF MEMF ONLINE:

Different events will be released each day of the festival, but the content will be available after that time for later viewing.

Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m.: Orlando Consort (below) in 15th-Century Chansons from the Library of Congress

Sunday, July 12, at 7 p.m.: Piffaro, The Renaissance Band: (below) Excerpts from Burgundian Beginnings and Beyond, Philadelphia

Monday, July 13, at noon: Michael Allsen (below), Musical Life and History at the Burgundian Court

Tuesday, July 14, at 7 p.m.: Trefoil (below): Trecento Music from Bowerbird Concert Series, Philadelphia

Wednesday, July 15, at noon: T-shirt challenge!  Post a photo wearing a MEMF T-shirt!  #MEMF2020; plus Lecture by William Hudson (below) on style in singing and ornamenting Baroque songs

Thursday, July 16, noon: Renaissance Valois Dance at the Burgundian Court, a lecture by Peggy Murray (below)

Friday, July 17, at 7 p.m.: Nota Bene viol consort (below) in Sonetti Spirituali; Italian Madrigals and Divine Poetry of the High Renaissance composed by Pietro Vinci (c.1525–1584) to settings of the poetry of Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) Brandeis University in Boston

Saturday, July 18, at 7 p.m.: All-Festival Concert videos from previous festivals. There will be a sing-along of Pastime With Good Company! by King Henry VIII (below). It will be led by a virtual MEMF Faculty Ensemble. You can hear the popular song — also known as “The King’s Ballad” — in the YouTube video at the bottom. (You can download the music and lyrics at: https://memf.wisc.edu/annual/online-program/)

We hope to see everyone in 2021, and that a vaccine is approved to help us gather again as a community experiencing all the arts with musicians, artists and audiences — at MEMF in Madison and around the world.

 


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Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Ear wishes you a Merry Christmas with three of his favorite pieces of music. What are yours?

December 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019 – is Christmas Day.

There is so much great Christmas music written by so many great composers. You’ll hear a lot of it tomorrow morning on Wisconsin Public Radio, starting at 9 a.m..

But here are three of The Ear’s favorites.

One comes from the “Christmas Oratorio” by the German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach and is loud, upbeat and brassy.

The second is “Lo, how a rose ere blooming” is by the early German baroque composer Michael Praetorius, and is so hauntingly quiet and intimate, sounding almost medieval or chant-like.

The third work, also intimate but on a much larger scale, is the “Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family” from “The Childhood of the Christ” by the Romantic French composer Hector Berlioz.

Here they are, first the Praetorius — in the original German — and then the Bach and finally the Berlioz.

And here is a YouTube compilation with almost three hours of seasonal music:

What is your favorite piece of classical music to celebrate Christmas?

Leave your answer – with a YouTube link, if possible — in the Comment section.


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.


Posted in Classical music
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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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