The Well-Tempered Ear

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: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival’s 20th anniversary Grand Tour includes a silent movie and rare books as well as lots of varied music to mark its success after 20 years. Part 2 of 2

July 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival, which is marking its 20th year, have come up with.

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass. Individual concerts are $22, $12 for students. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee; or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A for this blog. Yesterday she spoke about the overall concept and the first weekend’s concerts. Here is a link to Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/07/05/classical-music-the-madison-early-music-festival-will-present-a-grand-tour-of-musical-styles-a-movie-and-rare-books-to-mark-its-success-after-20-years-the-tour-starts-this-saturda/

Here is Part 2 of 2:

What events take place next week?

The concert on Tuesday, July 9, is going to be a unique experience for MEMF audiences. HESPERUS creates the soundtrack for the 1923 silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with music (below) from 14th- and 15th-century France. (The cathedral was started in 1163 and finished in 1345.)

Compositions include French and Burgundian music from 1300 to 1500, featuring Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, as well as lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton and Borlet.

On Friday, July 12, the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) performs “Faith and Madness,” a program of a dialogue between sacred music masterpieces followed by madrigals that portray madness, love, war and loneliness.

Composers include Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo, Clement Janequin and others.

All of the singers are graduates of Leipzig’s renowned St. Thomas Church Choir School. Calmus was founded in 1999. This a cappella quintet embodies the rich choral tradition of its hometown, the city associated with Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.

To hear a preview of their arrangement of Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, visit: https://youtu.be/WNzzUU0GcF4

Can you tell us about the program and performers for the All-Festival concert on Saturday, July 13?

The All-Festival Concert includes all of our workshop participants and faculty. We work together to prepare the concert all week and it is truly a MEMF community project. Grant Herreid (below) has created the All-Festival program this year. Grant is a genius at designing a program that tells a musical story featuring MEMF’s faculty and participants.

“Musical Postcards from The Grand Tour” features a narrator, loosely based on Thomas Coryat (below, at sea and in the Alps), the English 17th-century century travel writer, who, as a young man, travels throughout Europe in search of music. Beginning in London, 1641, the musical itinerary continues to Venice, Rome, Naples, Dresden, Paris, and back to London.

The program features so many wonderful composers, and the large ensemble pieces are: the Gloria from Monteverdi’s Selva morale et spirituale; the beautiful Miserere of Gregorio Allegri; Nun danket alle Gott by Heinrich Schütz; Domine salvum fac regem setting by Jean-Baptiste Lully; and, as an ending, This point in time ends all your grief from Ye tuneful muses by Henry Purcell.

Are there other sessions — guest lectures, certain performers, particular works — that you especially recommend for the general public?

All the planning that goes into each festival leads me to encourage the general public to attend everything! The concert series, lectures and workshops have so much to offer.

The special moments that I’m looking forward to are singing in the All-Festival concert and performing Allegri’s  Miserere,a stunning piece that I have never heard performed in Madison. (You can hear it in there YouTube video at the bottom.)

I also look forward to hearing the fantastic musical soundtrack created by HESPERUS for the silent movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Calmus singing connection back to Bach through their musical education in Leipzig, plus experiencing all the different travelogues of the past as they come to life through narrations and music.

Special events include a dance with a live band drawn from the MEMF Faculty with dance instruction by Peggy Murray, Grand Tour Dance Excursions, at the Memorial Union in the Great Hall on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30 pm. https://memf.wisc.edu/event/07-11-2019-2/

The lecture series features some well-known Madisonians like J. Michael Allsen (below top), who writes program notes and lectures for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Maria Saffiotti Dale (below bottom), curator at the Chazen Museum of Art.

There will be a special exhibit created for MEMF in the lobby of Memorial Library by Jeanette Casey, the head of the Mills Music Library and Lisa Wettleson of Special Collections at Memorial Library. This curated display includes materials about the Grand Tour, including one of the oldest travelogues from 1611 written by Thomas Coryat.

The exhibit will be in the lobby of Memorial Library (below) and open to the public from Saturday, July 6, through Thursday, July 18, with a special talk about the exhibit during the festival on Monday, July 8, at 11:30 a.m.

This partnership allows the library to display rarely seen original and facsimile publications, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries within the context of the MEMF theme.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the author of the travelogue Crudities foretold what you will hear at MEMF in 2019:

“…I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life…so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to heare the like…the Musicke which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like”.

Get your tickets for the concert series. Attend the lectures. Take some classes. See a movie. Come and dance with us. Join us to experience the ultimate musical gap year at our 20th anniversary celebration!


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will present a Grand Tour of musical styles to mark its success after 20 years. The “tour” starts this Saturday, July 6, and runs through Saturday, July 13. Part 1 of 2

July 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival (below, the All-Festival Concert in 2018) have come up with.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A interview for this blog. Here is Part 1 of 2:

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Madison Early Music Festival. Can you briefly summarize the progress of the festival over all those years and how you – through audience size, participants, media coverage – measure the success it has achieved?

How successful is this year’s festival compared to the beginning festival and to others in terms of enrollment, budgets and performers? How does this of MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

What can you say about where the festival will go in the coming years?

As the 20th Madison Early Music Festival approaches, we have looked back at how far we have come from 1999 when we were a little festival of 60 participants and faculty. We have grown to our current size of 140 faculty members and participants — fellow lovers of early music.

Last year, we had the largest group of participants when 120 students enrolled. MEMF now attracts students of all ages, from 18 to 91, amateurs and professionals, from all over North America and Europe.

Our success is due to the help and support of many individuals and outside organizations. We could not manage MEMF without the amazing staff at the Division of the Arts at UW-Madison. They help with everything from printed materials, website design and management, social media, grant writing, fundraising, proofreading and on-site assistance at all of our events and more.

Paul and I (below) work with Sarah Marty, the Program Director of MEMF, who keeps things organized and running smoothly throughout the year.

Also, we are grateful to our dedicated MEMF Board, donations from many individuals, grants, and the generosity of William Wartmann, who created an endowment for the festival, and after his death left an additional $400,000 for our endowment. It takes a village!

Not only have we become an important part of the summer music scene in Madison, but we have contributed to the national and international early music community. The 2019 concert series will be featuring artists from California to New York, Indiana to Massachusetts, and from Leipzig, Germany.

We hope to have many old and new audience members join us for this exciting celebration of our 20th year. For future seasons our motto is “To infinity and beyond!” as we continue to build on our past successes.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

This year we have a new program, the Advanced Voice Intensive, which provides an opportunity for auditioned advanced singers who are interested in a capella vocal music from the Renaissance – singing sacred polyphony and madrigals to improve their skills as ensemble singers.

Twenty singers from all over the country will be joining the inaugural program to rehearse and perform music from Italy, England and Germany.

At the end of the week they will sing in a masterclass with the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) on Thursday, July 11, at 11:30 a.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. On Saturday, July 13, they will perform in a FREE concert with the popular Advanced Loud Band ensemble in Morphy Recital Hall.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. and the concerts in Mils Hall begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass; each individual concert is $22, for students $12. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee, or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

We also have two Fringe Concerts this year featuring new vocal ensembles from Wisconsin. On Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m. at Pres House, Schola Cantorum of Eau Claire (below), a 12-voice ensemble directed by UW-Madison graduate Jerry Hui, will perform “Mystery and Mirth: A Spanish Christmas.”

And on Wednesday, July 10, at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the Milwaukee-based Aperi Animam (below) perform “Libera Nos,” a program of sacred vocal music.

The Fringe Concerts are FREE with donations accepted at the door.

Why was the theme of “The Grand Tour” chosen for the festival? What is the origin of the conceit, and what major composers and works will be highlighted?

We decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary by choosing a theme that would be broader than previous years and portray what people might experience when they are 20 years old – traveling abroad on a gap year.

We were also inspired by Englishman Thomas Coryat, aka “The First Tourist.” He published his travelogue Crudities in 1611, an amusing and thorough account of his five months of travel throughout Europe. This tradition of the Grand Tour of Europe continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, especially when wealthy young aristocrats finished their formal schooling.

Several of the concert programs this summer feature quotes from different travelogues, including Coryat’s, as an organizational concept. If you search all over Europe, you find an American at Versailles learning courtly manners, and a fictional Englishman, born in 1620, sending postcards from the Grand Tour.

We will also have a stop at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with the silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and a musical tour of sacred vocal music and madrigals. This theme allowed us to include music from many different time periods from all over Europe — a rich Grand Tour of musical offerings!

The opening concert on this Saturday, July 6, features Dark Horse Consort returning to Madison with Wanderlust, their newly created program for MEMF’s Grand Tour theme.  The program follows the misadventures of an English gentleman as he embarks on a continental Grand Tour adventure in search of love and fulfillment.

Our hero’s travelogue includes springtime consort songs by Alfonso Ferrabosco and William Byrd; Erasmus Widmann’s beguiling German dances dedicated to women; the wooing songs of the Italian gondolier; and sultry Spanish airs.

On Sunday, July 7, Alchymy Viols (below) performs “American at Versailles,” an original ballet masque of French baroque music, dance and drama written and choreographed by Sarah Edgar, featuring Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano; Sarah Edgar, director and dancer; and guest soprano Paulina Francisco. The American on the Grand Tour encounters the exotic world of French baroque manners, dress, dance and love.

TOMORROW: Part 2 explores the rest of the festival next week, including a rare book exhibit and the All-Festival finale on Saturday night


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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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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

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: 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
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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

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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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 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.

By John W. Barker

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: The Mendota Consort’s outstanding concert of music by the early Baroque master Johann Schein left one wanting more of both the music and the singers

July 25, 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. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

The Mendota Consort is to some extent a spin-off of the Madison Early Music Festival, first in 2017 and now this year.

Its membership has been shifting, though the versatile Jerry Hui has been a cornerstone, and the drive for its continuity has been the work of Maya Webne-Behrman.

The group’s concert at Luther Memorial Church on last Saturday night was the last of three performances given around the state. There are plans for several concerts in the season ahead, around the country, despite the members’ diverse and far-flung individual residences.

The group performing this latest program are five singers. As shown in the photograph below, they are (from left): sopranos Webne-Behrman and Chelsie Propst; bass Matt Chastain, alto Hui, and tenor Drew Ivarson.

Their program for these current concerts was devoted to selections from the collection Fontana d’Israel, or Israel’s Brünnlein, published in 1623 by Johann Hermann Schein (below, 1586-1630), one of the important composers of the early German Baroque, and a distant predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach in his position in Leipzig.

The collection’s title is conventionally translated as the “Fountain of Israel” but might also be rendered as “Israel’s Wellspring.” It consists of 26 relatively short pieces setting texts that the composer selected from various books of the Old Testament, texts with messages both personal and communal between Jehovah and His Chosen People.

These five-voice pieces — with optional basso seguentefor organ — might readily be construed as choral works in the post-Renaissance polyphonic style. But that would be a mistake, for the publication’s long subtitle stipulates that these are “in a special, graceful Italian manner.”  In other words, they are madrigals, not motets. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They show a German composer learning particularly from Claudio Monteverdi, constantly using his early trick of turning the five-voice writing into exchanges between two “trios,” consisting of Soprano-Soprano-Alto against Alto-Tenor-Bass, with the alto voice singing in both.  (So Jerry Hui never got any rest!)

The clever part-writing deserves to be heard with absolute clarity. And that is what these five singers gave us, with admirably precise German diction as well. They performed only nine selections from the full 26, effectively only one hour’s worth of music, but demanding the most disciplined part-singing, which can be very tiring for the vocalists.

This seemingly short program left one craving more, but it was a beautiful treasure in itself. It makes one hope earnestly for the Mendota Consort to continue to flourish and mature — and to return to Madison as soon as possible.


Classical music: The new period-instrument group Sonata à Quattro makes its debut and excels in early Baroque music

July 13, 2018
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ALERT: The All-Festival Concert that closes this summer’s 19th annual Madison Early Musical Festival will take place in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for the general public, $10 for seniors and students. Here are two links where you can find more specific information, including composers and works on the program:

https://memf.wisc.edu/event/all-fest-2018/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/classical-music-this-saturday-the-19th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-memf-starts-a-week-long-exploration-how-the-500thanniversary-of-the-lutheran-reformation-in-changed-western-music-part-2/

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) is becoming another powerhouse in our musical scene. Already a spark plug of the Ancora String Quartet, and now the director of the annual “Bach Around the Clock” bashes, she has organized a new ensemble, Sonata à Quattro, which made its debut on Wednesday night at Pres House.

This was done under the aegis of the current Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) as a “fringe concert” — in the manner long-established by the Boston Early Music Festival. Plus, the concert’s theme was “The Lübeck Connection,” clearly tying it to the MEMF.

The music was early Baroque, almost entirely from the 17th century.

The first half presented pieces by seven composers, including, among the better-known ones, Michael Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz, Heinrich Ignaz Biber and Antonio Vivaldi.

In the earlier pieces, the instruments were not originally specified at all — and one of them was in fact purely vocal. But the later ones clearly displayed the definition of the early string ensemble.

Indeed, the basic players — besides the backup harpsichord — were seated (below) in what is now familiar in the configuration of the latter-day string quartet, with the subtle suggestion that the earlier sonata à quattro genre was its natural predecessor.

The presence here of Vivaldi—besides Gabrieli, the only Italian among these Germans, and of later date—seemed a bit incongruous, but his familiar Sinfonia ‘al Santo Sepolcro’ actually illustrated well the mature à quattro texture. (You can hear the Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And a most impressive conclusion for this first half of the program was the fascinating eight-part Sonata in A minor by the sadly neglected Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665)—its eight-voice scoring not serving as a double choir but as a richly textured study in contrasting high with low parts.

For this first half, the core performers were Nathan Giglierano and Christine Hauptly Annin, violins; Fischer-Hoyt, viola; and Charlie Rasmussen, cello, with harpsichordist Daniel Sullivan.

They were joined along the way by gambist Phillip Serna (below top) who performed later on violone; and, for the Capricornus also violinist Thalia Coombs (below second), violist Micah Behr (below third) and viola da gambist Eric Miller (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The program’s second half was devoted entirely to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (below, ca. 1637-1707), the big star of the MEMF constellation.

First we had a Trio in B-flat from his Op. 2 collection, then a slightly French-style solo harpsichord Suite in D minor from Daniel Sullivan (below top).

Finally, we had two solo cantatas, sung by Kristin Knutson (below bottom), whose lovely soprano voice blended beautifully with the instruments.

This new ensemble will continue with concerts scheduled ahead for the coming season. But certainly this appearance represents a beautiful, and perfectly timed, introduction in a concert of true delight.


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