The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society again brings its surefire summery approach to serious classical chamber music when it starts its 28th annual series this weekend

June 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just the calendar that makes the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society the official start of the increasingly busy summer classical musical season in Madison.

The real reason is that the summer chamber music series, about to start its 28th annual summer this Friday night, June 14, is downright summery in its approach.

Say “summer,” and you think of lightness, of fun, of playfulness. And those are the very same qualities – along with serious, first-rate performances of great music by outstanding musicians – that BDDS brings to its six programs spread out in 12 concerts over three weekends and three venues during the month of June.

By now both the performers (below, in a photo by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS) and the audiences know that the formula works, however finely tuned or slightly changed it is from one summer to the next.

WHAT’S THE SAME

This year much remains.

There are still door prizes, spoken introductions and stories, mystery guests and a colorful art installation by UW-Madison designer Carolyn Kallenborn.

The titles of the six programs for 12 concerts over three weekends still have groan-inducing puns — “Name Dropping” in the theme for this summer — that are based on the musicians’ names like “Founteneau of Youth” after the San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below top) and “Quadruple Axel” after the Montreal-based violin virtuoso Axel Strauss (below bottom).

There are still the usual venues: the Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top); the Stoughton Opera House (below middle); and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green.

There are still the many distinguished and accomplished musicians among the many imported guest artists and the many local musicians, including the co-founders and co-artistic directors flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below). The Ear can’t recall ever hearing a bad BDDS performance, even of music he didn’t like.

And there is a mix of older well-known and classic repertoire along with newer and neglected composers and works.

WHAT’S NEW

But some things are different too.

The first concert this Friday will have a post-concert reception with free champagne and dessert to celebrate the 28th season.

This summer, unlike recent ones, there is no vocal music. All music is instrumental.

At both Stoughton and Spring Green, you can get food. Go to the home website for details.

Especially new and noteworthy is that the Russian virtuoso accordion player Stas Venglevski (below), from Milwaukee, will also perform on programs. Venglevski performs on the bayan, a Russian-style accordion noted for its deep bass sound and range and purity of tone.

Venglevski will be featured in works that range from polkas and heart-on-the-sleeve tangos by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; down-and-dirty original works by Russian master Tatyana Sergeyeva and arrangements of favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and others.

This Wednesday night, June 12, from 7 to 9 p.m., Venglevski and Jutt will perform “Bayan-o-rama” at the Arts and Literature Lab, 2021 Winnebago Street. Tickets are $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served.

Here is a summary of the first weekend:

WEEK ONE

The elegance, charm, and finesse of French cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau is displayed in a program called “Fonteneau of Youth.”

It includes music written by great composers in their youth, including the ravishing Elegy for cello and piano of French composer Gabriel Fauré; the rhythmically exciting Trio for flute, cello and piano of living American composer Ned Rorem; and the astonishing D’un soir triste (One Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning), both for piano trio, of 21-year old Lili Boulanger (below), who was the Prix de Rome-winning composer sister of famed teacher Nadia Boulanger and who died very young. (You can hear both pieces by Lili Boulanger in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The great Franz Joseph Haydn—always the most youthful of composers, even into his late years—is represented by the masterful Piano Trio no. 28 in E major, in honor of BDDS’ 28th season.

“Fonteneau of Youth” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on this Friday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m. A free champagne and dessert reception will be held following the performance to celebrate the 28th season opener. It will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater on Sunday, June 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Audience favorite Axel Strauss—not just a virtuoso violinist, but a virtuoso musician and artist of the highest distinction—will brave gravity-defying musical heights in “Quadruple Axel.” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Trio Sonata in D minor for violin, flute, cello and piano starts the program on an elegant note. Johannes Brahms’ fiery Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, raises the temperature significantly. And all sorts of hijinks are on display in Maurice Ravel’s extraordinary and ravishing Sonata for Violin and Piano.

“Quadruple Axel” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 16, at 6:30 p.m.

For more information about the full BDDS season and how to purchase tickets ($43 and $49), go to: https://bachdancing.org


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Classical music: Organist and composer Chelsea Chen debuts at Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Organist Chelsea Chen (below) makes her Madison debut on this Tuesday night, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall as part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Organ series.

Ticket information is below.

Chen brings to her Overture Hall premiere an array of widely known classical pieces plus her own original composition.

Chen’s performance begins with Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta and Edvard Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46— continuing with Chen’s original work, the Taiwanese Suite, Camille Saint-Saens’ Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3, Ad Wammes’ Miroir, and finally, selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Composer Gjeilo (below) has praised Chen’s interpretation of Sinfonietta, which the organist has performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46, by Grieg is one of the most easily recognizable compositions within the musical art form. Subtitled “Morning,” it is the first of two suites that Grieg (below) transcribed from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 Norwegian play Peer Gynt.

The opus, albeit a short first movement from the suite, intends to instill imagery of the sunrise over the North African desert. Despite this, it is more commonly associated with the sweeping mountains, fjords and lakes that mark Norway’s landscape.

Chen’s own Taiwanese Suite combines the dynamic range of the organ with inflections of traditional Asian folksongs. It is composed of three movements: “Hills in the Springtime,” “Moonlight Blue” and “Mountain of Youth.”

Inspired by the works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and others, Saint-Saens (below) composed a variety of arrangements and selections for numerous occasions. By age 10, the French composer and child prodigy had given his first concert. His Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3 is, as some consider, the pinnacle of his body of compositions. (You can hear Chen’s playing of the Finale from the “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Miroir was composed by Dutch composer Ad Wammes (below) for Stephen Taylor to celebrate the organist’s appointment to the Nicolaïkerk, a church in the Netherlands. In an unconventional mirroring — hence the title — the right hand repeats the higher voices in the same pattern throughout the song, whereas the left hand varies texture, voice and tone in the lower registers. The result is a calming, low hum that is lifted by the glistening echoes of the upper registers.

To Holst, The Planets suite could be framed as “a series of mood pictures,” with its seven movements. Ironically, Holst (below) seemed to heavily dislike his explosive popularity resulting from the suite’s compositional structure. Despite his supposed negativity towards the piece, its inherent superb qualities of each movement — no two are alike — became a staple of evocative composition.

Following an academic career at the Juilliard School and Yale University, Chelsea Chen has practiced under the tutelage of known names in the musical world, such as Paul Jacobs and John Weaver. For more information about her, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/chelsea-chen/

Single Tickets are available for $20 each and can be purchased online at http://madisonsymphony.org/chen, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two tickets for $10 each. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

This performance is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ (below) that was custom-built by Klais Orgelbau of Germany. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ.


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Classical music: Wikipedia offers a comprehensive overview of classical music in 2018. Plus, the annual New Year’s Day concert by the Vienna Philharmonic airs this morning on radio and tonight on TV

January 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – January 1, 2019 – brings just two items or stories to the blog.

NEW YEAR’S DAY FROM VIENNA

The first item is a kind of ALERT.

One of the most popular and beloved worldwide musical traditions is the annual Great Performances broadcast by National Public Radio (NPR) of “New Year’s Day From Vienna” with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This year’s conductor is Christian Thielemann  (below top) of the Munich Philharmonic and the host is Hugh Bonneville (below bottom in a photo by Nick Briggs) of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”

The concert is a sold-out feast of waltzes, polkas and marches (including the famous clap-along “Radetzky March,” with Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1987, in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The radio version will be broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio from 10 a.m. to noon THIS MORNING, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

Then at 8-9:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast the visual version of the event, complete with ballet and wonderful landscape, interior and architectural shots in and around Vienna. There will also be encore performances: https://wptschedule.org/episodes/48242142/Great-Performances/From-Vienna-The-New-Years-Celebration-2019/

For a playlist and more background, go to: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/from-vienna-the-new-years-celebration-2019-about/9076/

2018 IN REVIEW

The first day of the new year seems like the perfect time to look back and see what happened in classical music during the past year.

And this year, The Ear found something truly comprehensive and international.

Wikipedia has put together a year-end overview that is astonishing for its amount of detail. 

You will find a global day-by-day calendar that includes links, in blue, for more details.

You will find news items and major events – including the effect of the #MeToo movement as well as deaths and obituaries, jobs and retirements.

You will find a list of new music.

You will find a list of new operas.

You will find lists for several major awards for classical recordings.

It is a terrific resource — a good long read, both informative and entertaining. Perfect for New Year’s Day.

Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_in_classical_music

Happy New Year!


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Classical music: Need a break from holiday shopping or final exams? A FREE “Just Bach” midday concert TODAY marks Christmas. On Friday at noon a free concert features violin music of Mozart and Ravel.

December 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Need a  break from holiday shopping or final exams this week? Today’s post brings announcements of two short and appealing midday concerts:

TODAY

Just Bach is a new monthly series of hour-long concerts in Madison celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The series continues with an end-of-semester performance at 1 p.m. TODAY, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave.

Admission is free with goodwill offerings accepted. Audience members are permitted to eat and drink during the performance.

Next semester’s dates are Jan. 23, Feb. 20, March 13, April 24 and May 29.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach (below) would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

Here is the complete program for today’s concert:

BWV 729: In dulci jubilo (Mark Brampton Smith, organ)

Chorale: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I embrace You?) from Part I of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

BWV 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the Heathen)

Chorale: Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren (I will cherish you assiduously) from Part III of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Aria from BWV 213: Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my beloved)

Chorale: Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall (Look there, there He lies in a dark stall) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing)

Duet from BWV 110: Ehre sei Gott (Glory be to God)

SELECTIONS FROM PART IV OF BACH’S “CHRISTMAS ORATORIO”:

Recit and Chorale: Immanuel, o suesses Wort! (Emmanuel, oh sweet word!)

Aria: Floesst, mein Heiland, floesst dein Namen (My Saviour, Your name instills)

Recit and Chorale: Wohlan, dein Name soll allein (Well then, Your name alone)

Aria: Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben (I will live only to honor You)

Chorale: Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht  (Break forth, oh beautiful morning light) from Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (All sing). You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the critically acclaimed Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, sung to pictures of Bach’s own manuscript.

Singers are Sarah Brailey and Elisheva Pront, sopranos; Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, mezzo-soprano; Wesley Dunnagan, tenor; and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe, bass.

The orchestra includes: Kangwon Lee Kim (below) and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt and Micah Behr, violas; James Waldo, cello; and Mark Brampton Smith, organ.

FRIDAY

This Friday, Dec. 14, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will features violinist Wendy Adams and pianist Ann Aschbacher.

The  duo will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35, K. 526 – which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — and Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2

Here is some background:

The First Unitarian Society of Madison presents “Friday Noon Musicales,” a distinguished artist recital series now in its 31st season.

Talented area musicians play most every Friday, from October through May. Mostly classical music, but Broadway, jazz, folk and other styles are presented at times as well. Enjoy complimentary coffee, tea and live music.

Concerts are free and open to the public. No ticket is required. All performances 12:15–1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

Visit https://fusmadison.org/music for upcoming featured artists.


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Classical music: The FREE one-hour, monthly midday concert series “Just Bach” debuts with excellent playing and outstanding singing as well as practical problems such as downtown parking and timing

October 1, 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

Marika Fischer Hoyt is becoming ever more ubiquitous, not only as a performing violist in orchestral, string quartet and period-instrument ensembles, but also as organizer of musical activities, especially as devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

Hoyt (below) has already revived the annual “Bach around the Clock” spectacular each spring to mark Bach’s birthday, but now she has established a monthly series of FREE midday concerts at Luther Memorial Church called “Just Bach.”

The first of this series was held last Thursday afternoon, Sept. 27, at 1 p.m. in the church sanctuary at 1021 University Avenue. Ten musicians participated.

The singers were UW-Madison alumna Sarah Brailey, soprano (below); mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe; tenor Wesley Dunnagan; UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

The players were Kangwon Lee Kim and Leanne League, violins; Fischer Hoyt, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Luke Conklin, oboe. All played on period instruments, with Mark Brampton Smith playing the organ.

The hour-long program offered Bach’s “Little” Organ Fugue in G minor, and two full cantatas: BWV 165, “O heiliges Geist- und Wasserbad” (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water) for Trinity, and BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), a dialogue cantata. (You can hear the opening aria of Cantata BWV 32 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both set the type of Pietistic Lutheran German texts standard for such church compositions of the day, and each built around pairs of arias and recitatives for different solo singers.

BWV 32, which adds an oboist (below, second from right) to the string players in some of the movements, is particularly interesting in representing a series of exchanges between the Soul (Seele) and Jesus Himself, culminating in direct duos between them.

Each cantata ends with a harmonization of a traditional Lutheran chorale. In the spirit of the program’s venue, the audience was asked to sing them, in German, from prepared sheets. In these, and in an English hymn from this church’s hymnal, the audience was prepped by Brailey, who served as general hostess.

In purely musical terms, the performances were really excellent, with both vocalists and instrumental players of established talents. And certainly the very atmosphere of a church setting evoked the composer’s original purposes. (The church’s ample acoustics enriched the musical performances, though they badly undermined spoken material on the microphone.)

Previously, the Madison Bach Musicians has been a rare group giving us specimens of the generally neglected cantatas, but now this “Just Bach” series will augment the works’ availability.

Subsequent concerts in this series will be switched to 1 p.m. on WEDNESDAY afternoons on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

For more background, including the addresses of Facebook and Instagram sites of “Just Bach,” go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/25/classical-music-just-bach-a-monthly-mid-day-free-concert-series-starts-this-thursday-at-1-p-m-in-luther-memorial-church/

But prospective attendees should be warned of practical problems. The early afternoon time is difficult for most people, there is no parking facility, and access to the venue will likely be limited to those already in the vicinity.

For all that, I reckoned some 40 or so people in the audience – with no one eating lunch, even thought that is permitted. So artistic merits might still surmount obstacles.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 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. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 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 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 season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 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

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
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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 Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


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