The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020 festival ends today. Here’s how to catch up on the 10 days of making Baroque music

April 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you recall, this year’s 12-hour Bach Around the Clock festival – a platform for students, amateurs and professional musicians to celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) — was scheduled to take place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 28.

Faced with cancellation of the annual free event because of the public health dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, the organizers decided to try going virtual and hold the festival online by asking performers to send in short videos made at home.

And it worked.

“From what we have heard, it has been a very rewarding experience for both the performers who sent in videos and for the people who watched and listened to them,” says violist and BATC artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below).

The cost of going virtual was not great, but it took lot of time and hard work, admits Fischer Hoyt, who says she spent between 7 and 10 hours a day to post each day’s Bach video.

It was hard especially at the beginning, she notes, when she had to learn how to use software programs, such as iMovie, to make and then upload and post the videos.

She didn’t just organize the online festival. She also performed and provided gracious introductions to the program for each day.

Lately, the videos average about 20 minutes – your Daily Minimum Requirement of Bach, as the witty Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom would say. But they were longer at the beginning when more videos were sent in. Towards the end, the festival even used some photos and audio recordings from past years to round out programs.

But the reach of the virtual festival, intended to be local, was wider than Fischer Hoyt had expected. Musicians replied and participated from Florida, Minnesota and – as you can hear today – from Costa Rica.

All the effort worked.

In one of the major victories against all the coronavirus cancellations and postponements in the Madison music scene, the Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020 brought the public beautiful Baroque music by voices, strings, keyboards and winds in cantatas, partitas, preludes and fugues, sonatas and suites.

Listening to just one a day would be a good way to spread out and savor the joy of the festival for 10 days while you self-isolate and shelter in place at home.

You can find the videos on YouTube. In the search bar, just type in Virtual Bach Around the Clock 2020, Madison, Wisconsin.

But a much easier and more organized way can be found here on the festival’s home website, which lists the videos in chronological order and links to them: https://bachclock.com/audience-listening-viewing

Try listening to them and tell us what you think about the individual videos and performances — do you have a favorite? — and about mounting the virtual festival.

And, if you like, leave a note of thanks in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Here is Day 5:

 


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Classical music: Today is the Winter Solstice. It’s a good time to listen to Schubert’s “Winterreise” (Winter Journey)  — this year in English translation

December 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Winter starts today – Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019 – when the Winter Solstice arrives tonight at 10:19 p.m.

That means tonight — the longest night of the year — we turn the corner. The days start getting longer and the nights shorter.

It is also the day when The Ear likes to listen to the best winter music ever written: the cycle of 24 songs called “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Over the years, The Ear has heard many fine versions. Among his favorite singers are Ian Bostridge, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Matthias Goerner and Thomas Quasthoff.

Next year, you can probably expect to see a new release of the performance this past week by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the pianist-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

But this year, he is listening – even as he writes – to a 2018 version by the critically acclaimed British baritone Roderick Williams (below top) with pianist Christopher Glynn (below bottom) on the Signum Classics record label.

The real and unusual appeal is that all the songs are sung in English — not the original German.

And The Ear finds it very appealing not to have to read translations but instead to sit back and listen directly to the meaning of the stories in the songs — all sung with excellent diction — in the austere, subtle and outstanding translation by theater director and writer Jeremy Sams (below).

It makes The Ear want to hear more Lieder or art songs sung in English translation — both live and recorded — just as he likes the translation, used by the Metropolitan Opera, done by the late American poet J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”

Try it and see what you think.

Here is the first song on YouTube, where the audio proceeds through the remainder of the 70-minute cycle after the end of each song.

Enjoy. And let us know what you think of the English translation:

 


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – the “Meditation” for solo piano by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez

July 27, 2019
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The solo piano repertoire is huge, but The Ear knows quite a lot of it.

Yet here is a piece he had never heard, live or recorded, until he finally did hear it this week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

It is the five-minute ”Meditacion” – or Meditation – by the 20th-century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

It is played beautifully and sensitively in a live performance by the unjustly neglected Mexican virtuoso pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (below), and was recorded — perhaps as an encore, given the applause at the end — with the Piano Concerto by Chavez for the nonprofit Cedille Records in Chicago and distributed by Naxos Records.

Listen to it and let The Ear know what you think.

Does anyone else hear echoes of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie in the music? Shades of other pieces or composers?

Do you like the Chavez piece?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What we learn when we learn music. To prepare for two events next Saturday featuring students and amateurs, here is an insightful and informative PBS video

March 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week from today, two big events will take place.

One is the new and improved Bach Around the Clock 5 celebration. The FREE and PUBLIC event takes place at St. Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, 1833 Regent Street, and runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It features all kinds of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by not only professionals, but also by students and amateurs of many ages, from young children to adults. The idea is to mark his 333rd birthday.

For more information about BATC 5, which will be covered in more detail next week, go to this website, which also features a complete schedule of performers and repertoire.

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

The other big event is the day-long series of Winterfest Concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). It starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs through the evening. It features hundreds of students from dozens of middle schools and high schools in the larger area.

Here is a link to the information about the series of concerts, which will also be treated more at length this coming week:

https://www.wysomusic.org/events/concerts-recitals/

In both cases, the larger importance of music education will be in the spotlight.

That’s all the more reason to spend three minutes listening to this week’s “Brief But Spectacular” segment from the PBS Newshour in which an accomplished musician discuss the benefits of music education beyond having a career as a musician.

It may also whet your appetite to take in one or both of the events next Saturday.

Here is a link to the YouTube video of that impressive segment:

 


Classical music: When you need a quick shot of music, go to “60 Seconds of Classical” on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube

August 23, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes a minute is all the time you have.

Or all you want or need.

But a quick moment of classical music can still provide the perfect mini-break or pick-me-up or shot-in-the-arm.

Kind of like those Daily Affirmations some people use.

Thanks to gentle nudging by a friend, The Ear has discovered just how to get that mini-fix of music.

It is a site on the social media site Instagram (below).

And the site is called 60secondsofclassical (below), which you can also find in somewhat different formats on Facebook and YouTube

It has terrific diversity and variety, top-quality performers, great music and excellent editing.

It is, in short, a lot of fun.

Almost like a game.

You can subscribe to it and also let the site know what entries you really like or even love.

Don’t read the caption at first.

See if you can identify the performer.

See if you can identify the composer.

See if you can identify the piece.

And see if you know what comes before and after the one-minute snippet.

Anyway there is a full menu of great music, great performers and great performances.

So take a minute — or two or three — and try it.

Check it out.

Then let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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