The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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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: Saturday brings percussion music, chamber music and choral music, much of it free

April 5, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

As you can tell from earlier posts this week, this weekend will be very busy with music.

But Saturday is especially, offering percussion music, chamber music and vocal music, much of it FREE.

PERCUSSION MUSIC

At 1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Percussion Ensemble of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will perform its 18th annual Percussion Extravaganza.

It features the world premiere of “Common Mind” by composer and WYSO alumnus Jon D. Nelson (below). For more a bout Nelson and his music, go to: http://jondnelson.com

More than 150 performers – instrumentalists, singers and dancers – will be featured.

Here is a link to details about the event, including ticket prices:

https://www.wysomusic.org/wyso-percussion-ensemble-to-present-the-2019-percussion-extravaganza/

CHAMBER MUSIC

At 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the Perlman Piano Trio plus two guest artists will give a FREE concert.

The program is the “Kakadu”Variations in G major, Op. 121a, by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, by Felix Mendelssohn; and the Piano Quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck. (You can her the first movement of the Mendelssohn Trio performed in the YouTube vide at the bottom, by pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)

Members of the quintet, based on an annual student piano trio supported by Kato Perlman (below), are: Kangwoo Jin, piano; Mercedes Cullen, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; Maynie Bradley, violin; and Luke Valmadrid, viola.

A reception will follow the concert.

CHORAL MUSIC

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Concert Choir (below top) will perform a FREE concert under conductor Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who is the director of choral activities at the university.

AN UPDATE: Conductor Beverly Taylor has sent the following update about the program:

“I’m happy to update our Saturday, April 6, free concert at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall:

“The Concert Choir is singing a program called “Half a Bach and other good things.”

“We’re singing just half of the B Minor Mass: the Kyrie and Gloria (12 movements), which were what Bach originally wrote and sent off for his job interview!

We have a small orchestra and a mixture of student and professional soloists: Julia Rottmayer, Matthew Chastain, Wesley Dunnagan, Miranda Kettlewell, Kathleen Otterson, Elisheva Pront and Madeleine Trewin.

The remaining third of the concert is an eclectic mix of modern composers (Petr Eben’s “De circuitu eternal,” Gerald Finzi’s “My Spirit Sang All Day”), Renaissance music (Orlando Gibbons’ “O Clap your Hands”), spirituals and gospel.


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Classical music: The reviews are in — and they are all raves. This afternoon is your last chance to hear the season-opening concert by maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Emanuel Ax

September 30, 2018
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Are you still undecided about whether to attend the season-opening concert — this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall — by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), with world-famous piano soloist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)?

Perhaps the following rave reviews — which all agree on quality of the program and the performances that start DeMain’s 25th anniversary season and the MSO’s 93rd season — will help you to make up your mind.

The program is certainly an attractive one. It features the curtain-raising  “Fanfare Ritmico” by the living American composer Jennifer Higdon (below); Sergei Prokofiev’s dramatic and appealing score to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” in a suite specially put together by DeMain; and the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, by Johannes Brahms.

Here is a link to a longer background story with details about the program, the performers and tickets, which run $18-$93:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a review written by Matt Ambrosio (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/madison-symphony-orchestra-gets-its-season-off-to-a-strong/article_3b90302e-b354-5e95-817c-23a0dffe6950.html

And here is the lengthy review — with many discerning details about the background and the actual performance — from the veteran and very knowledgeable reviewer Greg Hettmansberger (below) from his blog “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/john-demain-launches-his-25th-madison-symphony-season/

Unfortunately, The Ear could not find an opening-night  review by John W. Barker, who usually covers the MSO for Isthmus.

Of course, you can be a critic too. If you already have heard the MSO concert, either on Friday or Saturday night, please leave your own remarks – positive or negative – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: UW-Madison piano students will perform a FREE concert of all 24 preludes by Debussy on Saturday night. On Sunday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players perform their summer preview concert

February 16, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This is a busy weekend, especially if you are a fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. But two more events deserve notice:

SATURDAY

This year is the centennial of the death of the pioneering French composer Claude Debussy (below). The event will be celebrated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music all day this Saturday.

That’s when the annual “Keyboard Day” will take place, with a focus on French music and general matters of technique and interpretation. It is called “Debussy and the French Style” and covers everything from the French baroque keyboard masters to modern music, including how to use songs and poetry as keys to a composer’s mind.

All events are FREE and OPEN to the public.

But the really appealing part for many promises to be a concert at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall. That’s when UW students, both undergraduate and graduate, perform the complete 24 preludes by Debussy, which are landmark works of the piano repertoire. (You can hear Lang Lang play the famous and popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It should be very memorable. The Ear remembers enjoying a similar event when students played all the mazurkas by Chopin and all the sonatas by Mozart.

Here is a link to the outstanding schedule of the events, workshops and master classes by faculty members, invited high school students and guest pianist Marina Lomazov (below), that start in the morning at 9 a.m. in Mills Hall:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/keyboard-day-with-marina-lomazov-and-mead-witter-faculty/

SUNDAY

On Sunday night, the critically acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below) will give their usual preview concert – a sampler of sorts — of their upcoming summer season.

The concert will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in A Place to Be (below), a cozy and intimately exotic venue,  at 911 Williamson Street on Madison’s near east side.

The program is To Be Announced, but the Willys have a great knack for combining older classics with new music.

Tickets are $20.

For information about the group and the concert, and to obtain tickets, go to:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html


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