The Well-Tempered Ear

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

July 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Classical music: You probably know Brahms, but who are Caroline Shaw, Colin Jacobsen and Michael Kelley? The Willy Street Chamber Players will show you this Friday night

July 5, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth annual concert series by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) promises to be one of the high points of the summer season.

For more background about the Willys, go to:

Three concerts in July – at 6 p.m. on July 6, 20 and 27 in the Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) at 1021 Spaight Street on the near east side – are all inviting. (A subscription to all three is $40, while admission is $15 for each one separately.)

Each concert lasts about 60 to 90 minutes with no intermission.

That’s something The Ear really likes and would like to see copied by other groups and presenters. Such a format leaves you plenty of time to do other things to start the weekend – including enjoying the post-concert reception (below) with snacks the Willys obtain from east-side providers.

The opening concert seems especially promising to The Ear.

That is because so far the Willys have had a knack for programming new music that The Ear really likes.

This time is no different.

Along with the regular members, who rotate in and out, a guest singer, mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil (below), who sang a new work by John Harbison with the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet this past winter, will team up to present new works.

The three contemporary composers and their works are: “Cant voi l’aube (composed in 2015 and heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) by Caroline Shaw (below top), a composer whose work the Willys have performed before with great success; “For Sixty Cents” (2015) by Colin Jacobsen (below middle, in a photo by Erin Baiano); and “Five Animal Stories” for string sextet and “Ashug” (2018) by Michael Kelley (below bottom).

Then to leaven newness with something more classic and familiar, the concert will close with the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. (The Willys have been working their way through the string quintets and sextets of Brahms with terrific performances.)

Other concerts will include:

On July 20, six arias from the opera “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin as transcribed and played by UW-Madison soprano saxophonist Les Thimmig (below) and the rarely performed String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39, by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov ;

And on July 27, a program featuring wind music that includes “Night Music in the Streets of Madrid,” Op. 30, No. 6, by Luigi Boccherini; the Overture on Hebrew Themes by Sergei Prokofiev “Light Screens” (2002) by Andrew Norman (below); and the Kaiser Waltzes of Johann Strauss II, as arranged by Arnold Schoenberg.

The three local soloists for the final concert are: flutist Timothy Hagen (below top) and clarinetist Alicia Lee (below middle), who both teach at the UW-Madison and are members of the Wingra Wind Quintet, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf, who is finishing his doctorate at the UW-Madison and has often soloed with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

For more information about the Willy Street Chamber players—including a FREE community concert at the Goodman Community Center on Friday, July 13, at noon (with an instrument “petting zoo” for children at 11 a.m.) and at the Wisconsin Union Terrace — go to:

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Classical music: What is the best music to listen to in sub-zero cold weather?

January 6, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, I know three of the pieces I will NOT be listening to this week: the “Alpine” Symphony by Richard Strauss, the “Sinfonia Antarctica” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the “Winter Wind” etude by Chopin.


This week, we in the Upper Midwest are getting a typical January blast from the Arctic. The low temp last night was -11 degree F. As I am writing, the temperature has risen all the way to -8.

sub-zero weather

It will get above zero today. Briefly.

But then another winter Arctic front moves in and we again drop done below zero again with absolute temps down to -20 and wind chills down to -50 or more. On Wednesday, the daytime high will be -3.

So it seems The Ear will be logging quite a lot of indoor time since no warm up is in store until the weekend.

Hence The Ear’s Question of the Week: When the weather is this dangerously cold and you end up pretty much housebound, what is the music you like to listen to?

Sometimes I want to explore a new piece or a new composer.

But often, feeling deprived of normal activities, I want the comfort of listening to something familiar and maybe a little passionate and Romantic, which translates into “heated.” For one example, look below at the YouTube video of pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, by Chopin.

Of course, one could choose works on a grander scale such as symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven or Gustav Mahler, concertos by Robert Schumann or Peter Tchaikovsky, oratorios by George Frideric Handel, masses and requiems, and of course operas by Verdi and Puccini.

Or perhaps, like me, you favor a more intimate but collaborative rather than solo genre -– perhaps a string quartet or the piano trio, one of my favorites. I find the music of Franz Schubert so friendly and empathetic.

There is also some about the music of the Baroque and Classical eras that seems light, rational, clear-headed and reassuring. Something like Comfort Food for the Ears.

So perhaps I will put on some music by Johann Sebastian Bach or some of my favorite chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A week like this could also be a good start on listening to a series, something like all the symphonies or string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn or all the piano concertos of Mozart.

Another good choice would be to set out to explore the 550 sunny Italian-Spanish keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

Maybe it is an instrument that provides a respite from the cold — perhaps the guitar.

Anyway: Don’t be shy. Help us get through this bitter cold snap. Please use the Comment section to let The Ear and other readers know what you are listening to in weather like this -– or what you think you would listen to. Or what we should listen to. Include a link to a YouTube performance, if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Acclaimed Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos dies at 80 of cancer.

June 13, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos died on Wednesday. He was 80, and the cause of death was cancer that caused him to announce his retirement just a week ago. (He is seen below conducting The New York Philharmonic in a photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times.)

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos NY PHil CR Richard Termine

The Ear gives credit to Wisconsin Public Radio and afternoon radio host Lori Skelton (below top), who, it seems, probably made a quick programming change and played a recording by him and the legendary Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha (below bottom, 1923-2009) of Manuel de Falla’s lushly quiet piano concerto-like tone poem “Nights in the Garden of Spain.”

Lori Skelton in studio

Alicia de Larrocha BIG at piano

It is refreshing to see arts events treated as newsy and important as, say, politics, sports and economics.

Plus, music by Manuel de Falla (below top) was a specialty of the conductor, as was other Spanish music, including works by Isaac Albeniz (below bottom). But he was also known for his interpretations of standard repertory, and led orchestras around the world to popular and critical acclaim. He also recorded many standard works for many different labels.

manuel de falla

Isaac Albéniz 1901

Here is a link to the background story and obituary on the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog at NPR:

And here is a link to the obituary in The New York Times:

And here is a YouTube video in which the conductor discusses his family and personal history and in which you can hear him conduct music from Franz Schubert ‘s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” and Manuel de Fall’s “La vida breve.”

Classical music review: The Ear thanks the many University of Wisconsin-Madison students who warmed him with their music during last weekend’s “Carnival” marathon.

March 9, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You know how it is. Sometimes it just takes too long to get off a Thank You note.

There’s no good reason for the delay. It just happens and you feel bad.

And that is what this posting is.

So I just want to apologize and say I am sorry and send an overdue Thank You to the several dozen UW students – most of them in music and most of them pianists, but not all – who staged the four-hour “Carnival” marathon concert last Saturday afternoon from noon to 4 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. (Below, UW piano professor Martha Fischer kicks off the event with a welcome).

Space won’t allow me to mention all of them, or even most of them, or even just all the highlights, of which there were many, so many.

But it was an enjoyable and informative event I will remember for a very long time, one that impressed me the same way that the Mozart Piano Sonata marathon and the Chopin Mazurka Marathon did. It is great to see students, teachers and the public pulling together and cooperating to make an unusual event successful. We need more of them. (All the Chopin waltzes and nocturnes, or Bach preludes and fugues, anyone?)

Last Saturday was a very cold day and I found my way through ice and wind and slush on the streets. But once inside the concert hall, what greeted me was the warm music from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Catalonia and Portugal) and Latin America.

I heard wonderful music by some well-known names including Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla, Lecuona, Ponce, Golijov, Ginastera, DeFalla, Villa Lobos, Mompou and even Debussy, the French composer who was influenced by Spanish music.

But I also heard some composers and music new to me, including works by Aute, Guerra-Peixa, Terzian, Montsalvatge, Novarro, Toro, Leon, Infante and Alarcon as well as British composer Mike Mower. And I heard a two-piano, eight-hand fantasy on themes from Bizet‘s “Carmen.” What a finale! And then was UW salsa band (below top) playing during Latin food and refreshments at the free reception where you could meet and congratulate the performers.

The crowd was enthusiastic, if small. People came and went, but no more than perhaps three dozen listeners filled the hall at any one time. Too bad! The event deserved better exposure and attendance.

But the small audience didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm or energy of the performers, who gave it their all and played with joy and soul, without hesitation or memory lapses.

So let me give some shout-outs to a few stand-outs:

Modern Argentinean literature graduate student Vicente Lopez Abad (below) played his guitar and sang soulful solo songs three different times during the concert. They were beautiful, and as you watched his closed and clenched eyes, you felt the intense intimacy and emotion he brought to his performances and took from the songs.

Jenny Jones (below) played a slow sonata by the Baroque composer Antonio Soler. Slow music sounds easy to play, but it is really very hard. And this performance was a marvel of control and quiet intensity.

Another standout was pianist Sung Ho Yang (below), who mastered the fiercely difficult, knuckle-busting and finger-twisting virtuosity of “Triana” by Albeniz and took listeners beyond technique to the music.

I am also a sucker for the music of Astor Piazzolla, whose “new tangos” invariably tear at my heart with their lyrical bittersweetness and make me weep. So I have to thank Wiiliam Mueller (below) who played his “Ausencias.”

I also have to thank duo-pianists Melody Ng and Hazim Suhadi (below) who played a great and stirring two-piano arrangement of “Adios Nonino,” Piazzolla’s farewell to his father. (Another two-piano version is at the bottom.)

Other duo-pianists, Melody Ng and Evan Engelstad played a piano, four-hand version of Piazzolla’s “Libertango” during which they slapped the piano case and twice changed places while playing.

I also have to thank the trio of violinist Maria Schultz, cellist Mark Bridges and pianist Monica Schultz (all below) in their playing of two of Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires.” (Through them, I found I like the chamber version more than the orchestral version.)

Close behind Piazzolla to my taste is Granados, who wrote great lyrical tunes and who died too young during the sinking of the Lusitania. Ciaoyin Cal (below) played his music with beautiful clarity and subtlety.

I also loved the singing of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams, accompanied by pianist Kirstin Ihde (below) in five songs by Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. So much of this piano and string music in general seemed very vocal and dance-like in nature.

And there was more, believe me, much more.

Was there any to criticize, any missteps?

A few minor ones.

The formal talk about Salsa and then the actual Salsa dancing (below) by members of Madtown Rueda Salsa just didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the concert, as enjoyable as the well–intended events were.

I would have preferred to hear someone talk about why so much Spanish and Latin Americana music seems to have an undercurrent of sadness that you don’t usually find in the music of other Romance cultures, including France and Italy. (Is it the dark power of the church and Inquisition? The long suppression of democracy? The paradoxically austere sensuality? The “tragic sense of life” as defined by a famous Spanish philosopher?)

There also seemed to be an assumption that the audience read and understood Spanish. So there were no translations on the programs. Too bad! Titles can tell you a lot.

And there was no Scarlatti! No Domenico Scarlatti, who was a great keyboard master and composer, and whose shot and colorful sonatas are so famous for imitating castanets, dancing steps and guitar strumming. And also no Ravel, who also Spanish color and used it in his piano and chamber music.

But those are minor points, given how much there was to praise.

So though it is late, I say to all of you, named and unnamed, pictured and invisible, a hearty and sincere THANK YOU.

Or, should I say, GRACIAS. 

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