The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: The critically acclaimed and popular Willy Street Chamber Players start their fifth summer series with a FREE community concert this Friday

July 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement for a remarkable and must-hear summer series of chamber music concerts that from its very beginning seems to have found a successful formula that resonated with the public  It relies on informality, affordable tickets, first-rate musicianship, short concerts, eclectic programs that mix classics with sure-fire new music, support for their local community.

Now in their fifth year, the Willy Street Chamber Players (WSCP, below) have become an established part of the Williamson Street neighborhood.

Recently awarded the silver medal in Madison Magazine’s prestigious “Best of Madison” reader poll in the category of “Best Classical Music Group,” WSCP has received numerous accolades for its accessible and exciting performances, intelligent and fun programming, and dedication to community partnerships.

The group has also been named “Musician of the Year”for 2016 by this blog.

The Summer Series concerts are on Friday evenings at 6 p.m. in the sanctuary of the beautiful Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) at 1021 Spaight St. The church is right on Lake Monona in the Williamson Street neighborhood. Enjoy 60-90 minutes of inspiring and unforgettable live music, then go explore the neighborhood with the remaining daylight hours.

Following the performance, enjoy a reception provided by one of our Willy Street restaurant partners. (Past contributors have been the Underground Butcher, Let It Ride Cold Brew Coffee, Madison Sourdough, the Willy Street Co-Op, Festival Foods, Roman Candle Pizza and more.)

While you enjoy your snacks, chat with the friendly musicians and ask them about the performance, the pieces and the group. We love interacting with our awesome audience.

A season pass is $40. Admission to individual concerts is $15. For tickets and more infomation, got to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/2019-summer-series.html

COMMUNITY CONNECT – This is a FREE and family-friendly concert with all ages welcome for music, interactive learning, conversation and connections.

It takes place this Friday, July 5, at 6 p.m. at the Goodman Community Center (149 Waubesa Street on the east side), as is posted on the home website — NOT at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, which is listed in the printed brochure but is undergoing construction.

The program – “Growing Sound: A Sonic Exploration” – features music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Corigliano, Antonin Dvorak, Friedrich August Kummer and Alberto Ginastera.

SUMMER SERIES 1

Friday, July 12, at 6 p.m. – Mozart and Mendelssohn

Prize-winning UW-Madison graduate Danny Kim, viola (below)

PROGRAM:

Mendelssohn: String Quintet No. 1 in A major, Op. 18 (1826)

Simon Steen-Andersen: Study for String Instrument No. 1 (2007)

Mozart: String Quintet No. 2 in C minor, K. 406/516b (1787)

SUMMER SERIES 2

Friday, July 19, at 6 p.m. – Bassoon and Strings

UW-Madison Professor Marc Vallon, bassoon (below)

PROGRAM:

Beethoven: Allegretto for Piano Trio in B-flat major, WoO. 39 (1812)

Jennifer Higdon: “Dark Wood” (2001)

Franz Danzi: Bassoon Quartet in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820)

Alberto Ginastera: String Quartet No.1, Op. 20 (1948)

SUMMER SERIES 3

Friday, July 26, at 6 p.m. – Christopher Taylor, piano (below)

PROGRAM:

Ernest Bloch: Three Nocturnes (1924)

Jessie Montgomery: “Voodoo Dolls” (2008)

Dvorak: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887) with UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor. (You can hear the first movement of Dvorak’s beautiful and melodic Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, including background, biographies of the musicians, critics’ reviews, photos and how to support the Willy Street Chamber Players, go to:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org


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Classical music: On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians explore the miracle of Mozart across his lifetime and across different genres

April 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians concludes its 15th season on this coming Saturday night, April 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 7, at 3:30 p.m. with  The Mozart Miracle .

The program features performances of beloved music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, below) with an all period-instrument chamber orchestra in the magnificent acoustic setting of the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

Period-instrument specialists hailing from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City will perform on natural or valveless horns, classical oboes, gut-strung violins, violas, cellos and a double bass played with 18th-century transitional bows.

Early music specialist and bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below to, in a photo by James Gill) of UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will lead the orchestra (below bottom, in a performance last year at the First Unitarian Society of Madison).

Internationally acclaimed soprano Ariadne Lih (below), from Montreal, Canada, will join the ensemble for  Exsultate Jubilate — a ringing example of how Mozart could seamlessly fuse religious zeal with vocal pyrotechnics. (You can hear Renée Fleming sing “Exsultate Jubilate” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also features dance sequences, choreographed by Karen McShane Hellenbrand (below) of the UW-Madison, from Mozart’s ballet Les Petits Riens  (The Little Nothings).

Also included are pre-concert lectures: On Saturday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m.  there is a lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson with an 8 p.m. concert . On Sunday, April 7, his lecture is at 2:45 p.m.  with the concert at 3:30 p.m.

Advance-sale discounted  tickets are $35 for general admission.

Tickets are available at  Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East and West). You can also buy advance tickets online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are:  $38 general for adults, $35 for seniors 65-plus, and student rush for $10, on sale 30 minutes before lecture.

MBM artistic director Stephenson (below) sent the following remarks to The Ear:

Here are two fantastic quotations about Mozart:

“Together with the puzzle he gives you the solution.” Ferrucio Busoni on Mozart

“It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together as a family, they play Mozart…” Karl Barth

Both quotes underline, I believe, Mozart’s charismatic generosity of spirit, his sense of play and camaraderie. We’re all in this together! Mozart’s music is a perfect fusion of melodic inspiration — tunes so good they can stay in your head for joyous weeks at a time, or even a lifetime — and structural clarity.

His sense of proportion — when to display 18th-century balance and when to step outside the frame — is uncanny and always a delight. And for me, as a five-year-old-boy, dancing about the living room to the old LP vinyl — dancing lightly, though, so the record wouldn’t skip — it was Mozart’s boundless energy and joy, pouring out of the speakers, that really revved me up.

The Madison Bach Musicians program on this coming Saturday and Sunday will explore several sides of Mozart’s genius: master orchestrator and symphonist; aficionado of fugues; virtuoso keyboard player and mesmerizing improviser; ballet composer; and the greatest fashioner of material for the soprano voice.

MBM has assembled a Classical-period chamber orchestra, replete with gut strings and transitional bows, natural horns, and classical oboes. To this we’ll add: a fortepiano — the type of instrument Mozart toured with; an elegant dancer — for dance was an integral part of 18th-century living; and a magnificent soprano — Mozart was virtually besotted with the magic of the high female voice, and he wrote for it throughout his life with imagination and a sense of thrilling experiment that has never been equaled before or since.

Here is a bit about each selection:

Symphony No. 1 in E-flat majorComposed 1764 when Mozart was just eight years old (below), during an extended stay in London with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl. Strongly influenced by the symphonies of C. F. Abel and J. C. Bach (The London Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian).

Symphony No. 29 in A majorComposed 1774 when Mozart was 18 years old (below). It is often considered the pinnacle of his early symphonic writing.

Exsultate Jubilate  for soprano and orchestra – Written 1773 in Milan for the castrato, or male soprano, Venanzio Rauzzini, it is an elegant fusion of rapturous melodies and vocal display.

Adagio & Fugue  in C minor for strings – Composed in 1788, certainly the latest Mozart work on the program when the composer was 32. Mozart had by this time — largely through the Sunday soirees at Baron van Swieten’s—been studying Bach’s fugues closely for several years. This fugue is an arrangement of a work for two fortepianos, K. 426, which Mozart had composed five years earlier in 1783. Mozart added the opening Adagio for the strings version.

Fantasy in D minor for fortepiano – Mozart improvised frequently as part of both private and public performance. This Fantasy, with its dark distinctive opening which explores the fantastical low register of the fortepiano, may give us a good idea of what Mozart might have done one night just sitting down to “jam” for his friends.

Two French Songs for soprano and fortepiano — Birds follow the warm weather, so they never cease their courtship. And in the woods one day the protagonist foolishly rouses a sleeping Cupid — and pays a terrible price.

Ballet excerpts from  Les Petit Riens – literally The Little Nothings. Mozart composed most, but not all, of this ballet in Paris 1778 for Jean-Georges Noverre, ballet master of the Paris Opera. The work served as an interlude to an opera by Niccolo Piccinni that closed after just four performances.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

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 concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday 

June 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is 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.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to: http://bachdancing.org/concerts/festival-concerts/


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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players close out their season with great performances of great piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

On Saturday evening at the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, the Mosaic Chamber Players closed their season with a superlative program offering two of the greatest trios for piano and strings.

The players this time (below) were violinist Wes Luke and cellist Kyle Price, together with the group’s guiding spirit, pianist Jess Salek.

The first of the two works was the grand Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, known as the “Archduke,” by Ludwig van Beethoven. This is an expansive work, full of bold ideas and adventurous spirit, while demanding much of its players.

Of its four movements, the flanking ones are full of exuberance. The scherzo has double trios or mid-sections, and is full of tricks. The third movement is a noble set of variations on a broad, hymn-like theme. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The second work, following an intermission, was the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Though composed and published very early in his output, it was revised by the composer into a distinctly new version some 35 years later. It thus offers the passion of youthfulness as tempered and given better focus by age and experience.

Also cast in four movements, it is infused with full-blooded melody, especially in the first one, but the whole piece is worked out in a richness of texture typical of the composer.

Each of the two works was given a performance of unrestricted commitment and power, in the process demonstrating the contrasts in their styles. Each was introduced by violinist Luke (below), whose comments spoke to the works and their history but also to his own feelings about them.

This in fact pointed up the degree of personal involvement these performances conveyed. It was as if the three musicians were playing as much for their own delight as for the audience’s.

That quality illustrated why this Mosaic series of programs has been so very satisfying. This is chamber music playing of the highest quality and character, some of the very best to be had in Madison.

The more reason for these Mosaic concerts to be publicized widely and broadly supported by our musical public. Few cities in our country could offer better.


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