The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Who are the best pianists of all time? And which ones do you think were left off the list by Classic FM?

September 16, 2017
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The British radio station and website Classic FM recently published its list of the 25 greatest pianists of all time.

Plus, the website also included samples of the playing where possible.

It is an impressive list, if pretty predictable — and heavily weighted towards modern or contemporary pianists. You might expect that a list of “all-time greats” would have more historical figures — and more women as well as more non-Western Europeans and non-Americans, especially Asians these days.

Here is a link:

http://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/piano/best-pianists-ever/

So The Ear started what turned out to be a long list of others who should at least be considered and maybe even included.

Here, then, is the question for this weekend: What do you think of the list? Which pianists do not belong on the list? And which are your favorite pianists who are not included in the compilation?

Leave your candidate or candidates in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube link of a favorite performance, wherever possible.

Happy listening!

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Classical music: The Ear listens with eyes open and finds interesting photos at concerts

August 14, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It was the famous 20th-century composer and pioneering modernist Igor Stravinsky (below) who advised us to listen to music with our eyes open.

For one, it fosters our appreciation of the sheer physicality of making music. Musicians are, as the pianist Vladimir Horowitz once observed, athletes of the small muscles.

If you listen with your eyes open you can see a lot of things.

You can see how musicians give each other cues.

You can see the expression on their faces, the joy and pleasure that making music gives them.

You can observe how different members of the audience react differently to different music.

You can appreciate the many kinds of instruments with the eye-catching shapes, sizes and colors.

And you can see patterns that make for good photographs – if taking photos is allowed.

Of course even if it is, there are rules to follow so that the musicians and other audience members are not disturbed: no flash and no shutter sound are the main ones besides the rule of intellectual property and the forbidding of taking photographs – kind of a difficult one to enforce these days, what with all the smart phones out there.

But some musicians and groups are very friendly and open to photographing, especially if the photos are strictly personal and not for commercial use to earn a profit.

At the last regular concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber players a little over two weeks ago, The Ear found two that showed patterns for good composition.

It’s just fun. But productive fun that can capture the fascination with music and musicians, especially if you sit close to the performers.

Here they are.

First is “Three Clarinets,” a portrait of guest artist Michael Maccaferri, from the Grammy-winning chamber music group eighth blackbird, with the three clarinets he used in the Argentinian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” The black verticality of the clarinets is heightened by the same quality of the music stands.

The second is “Two Cellos and One Violin,” taken during the bows after the string sextet version of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante.” The shapes and shades of brown wood draw the eye.

Tell The Ear of you like this kind of photo essay and want to see more of them on the blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS — the slow movement of the Violin Concerto by Gerald Finzi

August 7, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has long had a fondness for the works of the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

His work may be relatively tweedy and conservative, but it is unmistakably modern. It is very poignant and appealing, with accessible harmonies and beautiful melodies. He seems much like a British Samuel Barber.

Ever since he first heard it maybe 20 years ago, The Ear has loved Finzi’s pastoral Eclogue for Piano and String Orchestra, which was meant to be the slow movement of a piano concerto but ended up being an independent work. And, judging by how increasingly  often it gets played on Wisconsin Public Radio, the Eclogue seems to be a favorite among a growing number of fans.

But there are other works.

There is the Romance for Violin and Small Orchestra.

There is the Romance for String Orchestra.

There is the Concerto for Cello.

There is his Romance for Clarinet and String Orchestra as well as the Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra.

And now The Ear has discovered the slow movement — appropriately marked “very serene” — of the Violin Concerto by Finzi, which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It is performed by British violinist Tasmin Little (below, in a photo by Melanie Winning), who four seasons years ago turned in wonderful performances in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell. She played Finzi’s rarely heard “Introit.”

If you want to hear the whole concerto, it is available for free on YouTube from a couple of different performers. And you can find many other works by Finzi on YouTube.

In any case, The Ear hopes the Violin Concerto gets programmed at a local concert.

This past summer, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society featured a song cycle by Finzi. Even so, we need to hear more music by Gerald Finzi in live performances.

Finzi was a modest and retiring man, publicity shy and not given to self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, who went underperformed and underappreciated during his lifetime. But he is an extremely welcoming and moving modern composer.

The Ear thinks he deserves a better place among other modern British composers who have become more popular, including Ralph Vaughan Williams (shown, below right, with Finzi), Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, William Walton and others.

Are there other Gerald Finizi fans out there?

What do you think about him?

And what is your favorite work by Gerald Finzi?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today brings the release of an impressive CD of clarinet duos and trios with UW-Madison cellist Uri Vardi and his clarinetist son Amitai Vardi

July 14, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is when another outstanding recording by UW-Madison cellist Uri Vardi gets released by Delos Records.

The recording, which features clarinet trios by Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms and clarinet-cello duos by contemporary composer Jan Radzynski, has all the makings of another winner.

For one, the repertoire is a fine mix of the late Classical style (Beethoven), the  late Romantic style (Brahms) and modernistic nationalism (Radzynski).

It is, of course, a family affair, as  you can read about here in a story about the premiere of the Concerto Duos by Radzynski:

http://news.wisc.edu/music-deepens-connection-for-father-son-performers/

The Ear also finds the playing first-rate and the sound engineering exemplary.

None of that should come as a surprise. You may recall that last year Vardi (below) and his colleague UW-Madison violin professor David Perry, along with pianist Paulina Zamora, released a recording of the three piano trios by Brahms. It was acclaimed by no less than Gramophone magazine. Here is a link to that review:

https://reader.exacteditions.com/issues/49269/page/3

The title of the new CD is Soulmates, and it seems fitting in so many ways that crisscross in many directions.

Here are notes from the educator and performer Uri Vardi:

“The title refers to friendship between composer and performer, as Jenny Kallick highlights in her liner notes.

“For his clarinet trio, Beethoven put to work the manners of a musical style that embraced the outward charm and lively sociability associated with the music of friends, interjecting his soon-to-be famous dramatic flashes only occasionally.

“Jan Radzynski (below) began his association with me in Israel, where the Vardi family from Hungary and Radzynski family from Poland first overlapped.

“Meeting once again during graduate studies at Yale School of Music, our friendship has been enriched by Jan’s project as an esteemed composer with multiple cultural ties to Poland, Israel, the US and Jewish tradition, and by my commitment as celebrated teacher and performer to collaborations across musical boundaries. Jointly, we have found ways to embrace the complexities of their origins and diaspora.

“The duo’s dedication to the entire Vardi family signals this deep connection.

“Nearly a century had passed before Brahms (below top) wrote for this same combination. Had it not been for his newly-blossomed musical friendship with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (below bottom, 1856-1907), a star performer in the Hofkapelle Orchestra at Saxe-Meiningen, the composer might have held to his recently announced plans to retire.

“On a more personal level, I admire composer Jan Radzynski’s music. I was moved by his gift to my son Amitai (below) — who teaches clarinet at Kent State University in Ohio — and me, and the rest of our family, of the Concert Duos. He presented the work to us in 2004, and we premiered it that same year.

“Brahms is the composer who influences me on the deepest level. Following the release of my previous CD by Delos, I was eager to record the fourth Brahms trio involving the cello, and was looking for an opportunity to add it to the other three trios.

“It is the greatest joy for me to play chamber music with my son. I was happy that both he, and my colleague and friend, pianist Arnon Erez (below), were ready to embark with me on the journey of performing and recording the three compositions on this CD.

“The UW Arts Institute awarded me the Emily Mead Baldwin Award, which helped me financially in releasing this CD. The recordings were done at the Jerusalem Music Center in Israel (which gave us their wonderful facilities free of charge).

“Sound engineer Victor Fonarov, who recorded this CD and started editing it, passed away before the completion of the work. So we decided to dedicate the album to his memory.

“Here is a promotional video, with a SoundCloud clip of the Beethoven work, for the recording:

https://delosmusic.com/recording/soulmates-cello-clarinet-piano/

“And you can hear an excerpt from Radzynski’s Duos in the YouTube video at the bottom.

“Interested readers can also purchase the album directly from Uri Vardi at: uvardi@wisc.edu”


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opens its 26th season with a bang worthy of its name. Plus, TONIGHT the Willy Street Chamber Players open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum in Spring Green

June 12, 2017
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A REMINDER: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green, six members of the Willy Street Chamber Players will open the summer season of the Rural Musicians Forum. The program features works by Johannes Brahms, American composer Charles Ives, and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. A free-will donation will be requested. The Hillside Theater is located at 6604 County Highway 23, Spring Green. For more information about the Rural Musicians Forum, go to: http://ruralmusiciansforum.org/home

By Jacob Stockinger

This guest review is by a new contributor, Kyle Johnson (below). As a pianist since elementary school, Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 26th season — themed “Alphabet Soup” for 26 letters — began on Friday evening at the historic Stoughton Opera House (below bottom) with a program of underprogrammed French, German and Russian works.

BDDS is led by artistic directors (below) Stephanie Jutt, UW-Madison’s newly-retired flute professor and principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Jeffrey Sykes, pianist of the San Francisco Piano Trio who studied at the UW-Madison. The two musicians assembled a “dynamite” group of musicians for their opening concert.

First on the program was Médailles antiques (Old Medals) for flute, violin and piano from 1916 by Philippe Gaubert (below). Like the weather throughout the day on Friday, the piece provided a sunny and spry start to the program in the centennial year of World War I.

At times, I wanted the ends of phrases to have a little more stretch and grace to them. However, the richness of sound from each musician, as well as the ensemble’s superb blend, made up for any small qualm I may have had.

The next piece, Gideon Klein’s String Trio (1944), featured three “apprentice” musicians from BDDS’s Dynamite Factory. Violinist Misha Vayman (below top), violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below middle) and cellist Trace Johnson (below bottom) are the program fellows for this year’s series.

Striking about the work was Klein’s musical optimism amid stark reality – the piece was written at the Auschwitz concentration camp just a few months before the death of the composer (below).

The Dynamite Factory artists gave a spirited rendition of the weighty work, which at times resembles the rollicking intensity of Bela Bartok’s folk dances.

Before the intermission, the audience was treated to Sergei Prokofiev’s chilling Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, for violin and piano. Like the preceding piece, Prokofiev’s sonata was written during the strife of World War II. (You can hear the first movement, played by Maxim Vengerov, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Prokofiev labeled one passage at the end of the first movement as “wind passing through a graveyard”; the passage (a series of quick violin scales) returns at the close of the piece. Under the hands of violinist Carmit Zori (below top) and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below bottom), the sonata seemed both devastating and human.

A brief, unprogrammed presentation began the second half of the concert, which was a performance of “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the oratorio Solomon by George Frideric Handel.

The work was lauded and produced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich in the mid-1700s. Fittingly, during the music, characters clad in 18th-century attire roamed the Stoughton Opera House to hand out sandwiches.

Last on the program was Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26, played by violinist Zori; Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below top); Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joseph Johnson (below bottom); and pianist Sykes.

The quartet brimmed with musical swells and overlapping layers of sound. There are a number of memorable themes that allow the listener to simply ride the wave of sound throughout the 40-minute work.

All of the musicians were fully deserving of the ovation (below, in a photo by Kyle Johnson) they received in Stoughton, as all technical demands were met with superb musicality and passion.

Future BDDS concerts run through June 25 and are not to be missed! For more information about programs and about performers, performance dates, times and venues, go to www.bachdancing.org


Classical music: Here is music to mark Memorial Day. What pieces would you choose?

May 29, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2017, when those soldiers who died in war and service to their country are honored. (Below is an Associated Press photo of the National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.)

Many blogs, newspapers and radio stations list classical music that is appropriate for the occasion.

But one of the very best compilations that The Ear has seen comes this year from Nashville Public Radio.

Perhaps that makes sense because Nashville is such a musical city.

Perhaps it has to do with other reasons.

Whatever the cause, this list gives you modern and contemporary composers and music (John Adams, Joseph Bertolozzi and Jeffrey Ames) as well as tried-and-true classics (Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar, Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin).

It even features some music that The Ear is sure you don’t know.

Take a look and many listens:

http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Do you agree with the choices?

Do you like them or at least some of them?

Which ones?

Which music would you choose to mark today?

Leave a name and, if possible, a link to YouTube in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New music and old music meet in a benefit concert this Saturday night for the Art+Literature Lab of Madison

March 23, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear received the following information from Eric Miller to pass along:

Thanks for sharing my recital at the First Unitarian Society of Madison last week. I really appreciate what you do.

I’m repeating the program of unaccompanied music for viola da gamba at the Arts+Literature Lab (below) on this Saturday, March 25, at 8 p.m.

Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door.

I’ll be playing the first suite by Le Sieur de Machy and the Sonata VI by Johannes Schenk from his collection “L’echo du Danube,” (Echo of the Danube), as well as a few other smaller pieces. (Below is Eric Miller, who also performs a Prelude to a suite by Le Seiur de Machy in the YouTube video at bottom.)

In addition to my set, my idea was to juxtapose this music I love with music that is equally intricate and beautiful, but from different sound worlds and traditions.

Milwaukee cellist Patrick Reinholz (below top) will be playing modern pieces by Italian composer Luciano Berio (below middle) and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (below bottom) as well as one of his own compositions from a solo recording he is releasing.

Finally, cellist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Brian Grimm (below) will be presenting some of his own compositions and improvisations.

The Facebook event page is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1384611978280528/

Advanced tickets are available here: http://ericmiller.bpt.me/

The Arts+Literature Lab (A+LL) is at 2021 Winnebago Street, on the east side of Madison. It is really doing exciting things for the community.


Classical music: Madison Opera scores a big artistic and commercial success with the Midwest premiere of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” How about seeing and hearing more new music and new operas?

February 15, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest review by The Opera Guy, who is himself a senior and who has followed opera for many decades and across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Performance photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon I attended the second, and final, of two sold-out performances of Daniel Schnyder’s “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” presented by Madison Opera, which gave the Midwest premiere of the new work.

Although it is a chamber opera featuring only 16 instrumentalists and running a little over 90 minutes, it was an engaging, satisfying and often hypnotic operatic experience.

The orchestral and vocal music were readily accessible.  As a compliment to the composer, I was reminded of the later work of the great British composer Michael Tippett.

The plot features Charlie Parker’s mother, three of his wives, his friend Dizzy Gillespie and his current patroness, the fascinating Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, as they confront Parker’s spirit after his death but before his removal from the morgue and burial.

madison-opera-charlie-parker-body-cr-james-gill

(Below, standing in front of the photo-portrait set of the Birdland jazz club, are the major cast members, many of whom were in the original world premiere productions at Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater of Harlem in New York City. From the left, they are: Angela Brown as Addie Parker; Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie; Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker; Angela Montellaro as Doris Parker; Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker; and Krysty Swann as Rebecca Parker.)

madison-opera-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-will-liverman-as-dizzy-gillespie-rachel-sterrenberg-as-chan-parker-angela-montellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann

A pioneer and innovator of bebop in the world of jazz, saxophonist Parker died young and dissolute, destroyed by drugs and alcohol. Portrayed by Joshua Stewart (below), Parker is unsympathetic and weak, desperate to create but distracted. Stewart is a fine, convincing actor. His singing was often compelling, but his voice was too thin in the higher reaches demanded by the score.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

The other characters were ably portrayed and consistently strong vocally. Will Liverman’s Dizzy Gillespie was a standout – lyrical and touching.

Likewise, Krysty Swann (below center with a baby) was solid vocally and emotionally convincing as Parker’s abandoned first wife Rebecca Parker.

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-krysty-swann-and-rebecca-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

Rachel Sterrenberg was moving and gripping vocally as Parker’s final wife Chan.

Julie Miller as Baronness Nica commanded the stage whenever she appeared, perhaps because of her bright red dress in a sea of black garments but also because of her powerful portrayal and expressive singing.

Whenever Angela Brown (below right, with Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker) was onstage as Parker’s mother, Addie, she was the focus. She owned the role, she sang beautifully, and she had some of the best material to sing.

(You can hear Angela Brown, who has appeared here before with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera, in the world premiere production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

madison-opera-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-angela-brown-as-addie-parker-cr-james-gill

One of the finest moments in the opera was an orchestral interlude followed by a vocalise by another of Parker’s wives, Doris, sung by Angela Mortellaro (below). I was totally captivated, as I was by the quintet toward the end with Dizzy, the three wives and Parker’s mother.

madison-opera-angela-mortellaro-as-doris-parker-joshua-stewart-as-charlie-parker-cr-james-gill

Such are the moments for which an opera aficionado waits – several minutes of total aural delight.

Maestro John DeMain was, as always, in full command of the score as he led members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I was in a position to watch him conduct, and he was always totally involved in the moment. I repeat what I have said before: Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) is a treasure for which Madison should be constantly grateful.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

I personally like newer music and always welcome the chance to hear something other than the tired Brahms overtures, Tchaikovsky symphonies and Mozart piano concertos.

The argument in Madison seems to be that to fill seats, you have to give the audience what it wants; and the belief is that it wants music that is tried, true and safe.

The fact that this new work sold out both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center and that the audience was not entirely made up of seniors seems to suggest that the halls can be filled if the programming is more adventurous.

I say let’s hear more music of the 20th and 21st centuries, draw in a new audience and give the seniors a little thrill.

What do you think?


Con Vivo performs rarely heard chamber music by Milhaud, Medtner and Zemlinsky this Sunday afternoon. Plus, a FREE concert of flute music is this Friday at noon

February 9, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison features Danielle Breisach and Taya König-Tarasevich playing music for baroque and modern flutes. They will play works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jacques-Martin Hottetere and Yuko Uebayashi. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

“Con Vivo! … music with life,” (below) continues its 15th season with a chamber music concert entitled “Capital Europeans” on this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 12, at 2:30 p.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. across from Camp Randall Stadium.

con-vivo-2016

Tickets can be purchased at the door. Admission is $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

The winter concert, called, “Capital Europeans,” features pieces from three distinct European composers, each with his own style.

Representing Paris, the program includes selections from the Organ Preludes by French composer Darius Milhaud.

darius milhaud

Representing Vienna is the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano by Austrian composer Anton Zemlinsky. (You can sample Zemlinsky’s Clarinet Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Alexander Zemlinsky

The concert will end with a piece that was 46 years in the making: from Moscow, the Piano Quintet for strings and piano by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner (below).

nikolai-medtner

Audience members are invited to join the musicians after the concert for a free reception to discuss the concert.

Adds Con Vivo’s artistic director Robert Taylor: “With this concert, we are performing a Sunday matinee with three unique composers, each with his own musical language. Our Madison audience will be able to hear our musicians up close and personal playing music of extreme delight and depth.”

Con Vivo is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.

con-vivo-on-the-balcony

For more information about Con Vivo and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://www.convivomusicwithlife.org


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