The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra ends its eighth season this coming THURSDAY night with an ambitious program featuring the piano concerto by Schumann and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

May 25, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below): They keep testing and pushing themselves towards bigger achievements and more difficult music.

This coming Thursday night, May 31 – NOT the usual Wednesday night  performance time — the MCP will close out its eighth season with an ambitious program.

As The Ear has said many times before, both in reviews and when he named the MCO “Musician of the Year” for 2014, there is so much to praise and enjoy about the MCO:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/classical-music-the-ear-names-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-adult-amateur-music-makers-as-musicians-of-the-year-for-2014/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/classical-music-maybe-its-back-to-the-future-the-classical-music-scene-needs-more-groups-to-act-like-the-middleton-community-orchestra-and-break-down-barriers-between-performers-and-listene/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

The all-Romantic, all-masterpiece program this time features a familiar soloist, pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below) in the supremely lyrical Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the poignant slow movement played by Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Kasdorf graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he is now doing graduate work in piano.

In addition, the MCO will close with the formidable Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Sometimes called “Beethoven’s 10th,” it will be conducted by Steve Kurr (below), the usual and very able conductor of the MCO.

The concert is on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below), which is attached to Middleton High School at 2100 Bristol Street. It is a comfortable venue, and a good shelter from the hot weather and humidity that are predicted to overtake us for the next week or so.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $15, but students are admitted free of charge — a deal that is hard to beat.

Advance tickets can also be purchased at the Willy Street Coop West.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception after the concert for the music-makers and the audience to mingle – the perfect way to end a season.

If you want to find out more about the MCO season or about how to join it or support it, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

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Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A FREE recital by the Del Sol string quartet on Monday night honors pioneering composer Ben Johnston

May 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been asked to post the following announcement:

The San Francisco-based ensemble the Del Sol Quartet will give a FREE public recital on Monday night, May 21, in Madison in honor of pioneer composer, teacher and mentor Ben Johnston (below).

For more information about the composer, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Johnston_(composer)

The recital is on the occasion of Johnston’s upcoming induction into the American Academy of Arts and Lettershttps://artsandletters.org/pressrelease/2018-newly-elected-members/

This FREE performance will be held in the new Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Monday night at 7 p.m.

The program will feature Johnston’s two most popular string quartets: the Fourth Quartet (based on the beloved theme “Amazing Grace”); and the Tenth Quartet (also based on a popular folk melody). In addition there will be works by some of Johnston’s contemporaries. (You can hear the Fourth Quartet of Ben Johnston in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Johnston, 92, has made his home in the Madison area for the past 11 years, where he continues to advance the field of microtonal music composition and performance, most notably initiated in the U.S. by music legend Harry Partch, with whom Johnston studied for several years. Partch’s seminal work, “Genesis of Music,” was first published in Madison by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1949.

Winner of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Johnston spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He had a significant role in some of the Contemporary Arts Festivals, which were annual events in the 1960s. His service, as composition teacher and mentor there, led to an honorary doctorate from that institution. He is also the author of “Maximum Clarity,” published by the University of Illinois Press.

Hailed by New York Times critic Mark Swed as “probably [America‘s] most subversive composer …able to make both radical thinking and avant-garde techniques sound invariably gracious,”Johnston’s diligent dedication recently resulted in the release of the third CD by the Milwaukee-based Kepler Quartet https://www.keplerquartet.com/ on the New World Music label https://www.newworldmusic.com/

The three CD series encompasses all of Johnston’s string quartets and took 14 years of painstaking collaboration to bring to fruition, receiving high acclaim internationally. Johnston has been well-known in experimental music circles since his second quartet came out on Nonesuch Records in 1969.

Hailed by Gramophone as “masters of all musical things they survey” and two-time winner of the top Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the Del Sol String Quartet shares living music with an ever-growing community of adventurous listeners.

Del Sol (below) was founded in 1992 at Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and is recognized as a “vigorous champion of living composers,” focusing on music that reflects the cultural diversity of the community, advocating works by both world-renowned and emerging composers, and collaborating across disciplines. Del Sol has commissioned and premiered over 100 works by a diverse range of composers.

The Quartet has performed on prominent concert series nationwide, including the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, Symphony Space, Cabrillo Festival, Other Minds Festival, and Santa Fe Opera.

The quartet conducts an active educational program in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to regular residencies at universities and music schools across the country.”

For more information, go to: http://delsolquartet.com/


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Music education: Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras present their spring concerts and concerto winners this Saturday and Sunday afternoons

May 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will present its third and final concert series of the season, the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Fa­mily Spring Concerts, on this Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20.

The concerts will take place in Mills Concert Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. 

Programed pieces include works from Felix Mendelssohn, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arturo Marquez, Aaron Copland, Jacques Offenbach, and more.

For a complete repertoire list, go to:https://www.wysomusic.org/eugenie-mayer-bolz-family-spring-concerts-repertoire/

The concert weekend features four concerto performances from the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra members, and the final concert by Mark Leiser (below), who will rertire as conductor of WYSO’s Sinfonietta orchestra after 25 seasons.

Each year, WYSO hosts a concerto competition for members of the Youth Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Concerto competition winners performing during the spring concerts this year are Ellen Zhou, a seventh-grader at E.G. Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, and a member of Philharmonia Orchestra; Ava Kenney, a seventh-grader at Saint Maria Goretti School, and a member of Philharmonia Orchestra; Morty Lee, a junior at James Madison Memorial High School, and a member of Youth Orchestra; and Isabelle Krier, a junior at Oregon High School, and a member of Youth Orchestra.

Ellen Zhou (below top) will perform Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate, and Ava Kenney (below bottom) will perform the first movement of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn with Philharmonia Orchestra on Saturday.

Morty Lee (below top) will perform the first Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich; and Isabelle Krier (below bottom) will perform the third movement of the Violin Concerto in D Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with the Youth Orchestra on Sunday.

Sinfonietta conductor Mark Leiser (below, conducting) will give his final concert on May 19. Leiser has been the sole conductor of Sinfonietta since its inception 25 years ago. His son Kenny Leiser, a WYSO alumnus, will sit in with the orchestra during their performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “new tango” piece Oblivion.

WYSO students travel from communities throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois each weekend throughout the concert season to rehearse on the UW-Madison campus.

Each orchestra performs three concerts per season, with additional performance opportunities available to students, including ensembles and chamber music groups.

Concert admission is $10 for adults, and $5 for youth 18 and under, with tickets available 45 minutes before each performance at the door on the day of the concerts.

For a full concert repertoire, and to learn more about WYSO, visit https://www.wysomusic.org

Here is a schedule of events:

Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family Spring Concerts

SATURDAY
1:00 p.m. – Harp Ensemble (below top), Concert Orchestra, Sinfonietta
4:00 p.m. – Percussion Ensemble (below bottom) and Philharmonia Orchestra

SUNDAY
2:00 p.m. – Opus One and Youth Orchestra


Classical music: Two performances of a FREE family concert for young children of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” take place this Saturday morning at the Goodman Community Center  

May 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, young children and their families can experience the world of classical music through the eyes and ears of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven will be portrayed by Whitney Derendinger (below) of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.

Two performances of the FREE concert will combine music, storytelling and learning for the whole family as Beethoven and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, with help from students from the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music, bring to life the compositional journey of the infamous theme and first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom that has more than 53 million views — which closed the WCO season last weekend.

Here are the details:

WHERE: Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa Street, on Madison’s east side

WHEN: Saturday, May 19, 2018

CONCERT 1

9:00 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

9:30 a.m. | Performance #1 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 1

CONCERT 2

10:45 a.m. | Preconcert Activities

11:15 a.m. | Performance #2 (40 minutes)

CLICK HERE to get tickets to Concert 2

The WCO’s Family Community Concert Series is a new, free-of-charge but ticketed educational program for children ages 4-10 and their families.

A unique format will encourage audience members of all ages to interact with classical music and each other like they never have before and serve as a new way for parents to introduce their children to classical music.

WCO will use music to inspire connections within families and communities and to foster a love for music that spans generations.

Families can also help prepare children for the experience. For more information and a preparatory study guide, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/education/wco-connect-family-concerts/concert-experience

The event is sponsored by CUNA Mutual and Findorff Construction.


Classical music: Oakwood Chamber Players take a “Journey” to explore neglected and oppressed German and Dutch composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

May 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The accomplished and acclaimed Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their exploration of neglected repertoire and end their “Journey” season with two performances of a concert titled Legacy on this Saturday night, May 19, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday afternoon, May 20, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon by Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (below) was written in 1917 and is neo-Classical in style. Röntgen was a classmate and lifelong friend of Edvard Grieg’s whom he met at the Leipzig Conservatory. He studied with Lachner and Reinecke, and collaborated with Brahms and Casals in concerts. His musical career spanned the roles of composer, teacher, and concert pianist. He was instrumental in the founding of the Amsterdam Conservatory and the world-famous Concertgebouw Orchestra.

A frequent participant in chamber music himself, he was a fine contributor to the genre. Röntgen’s Wind Trio in G Major shows his compositional facility: from a playful Haydn-influenced first movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom) to an adagio melody in the second movement that is drawn from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and to the final movement with a Danish folk melody at its heart that is enhanced by upbeat creative variations.

German composer Heinrich Kaminski (below) wrote his atmospheric String Quartet in F major. Written over the time period leading up to World War I, this four-movement piece encompasses moodiness contrasted with high energy. The scherzo movement has the feel of a driven dance, the adagio movement is emotionally charged, and Kaminski’s final movement recaps themes of the piece’s restless expressivity.

Recognition of his talent in Berlin was cut short when the Nazi Gestapo intercepted correspondence that revealed Jewish heritage. His music was deemed unsuitable for performance in Germany and banned in 1937. He fled to Switzerland yet his life was profoundly impacted by events. He died shortly after the war, having endured the dissolution of his marriage, declining health and loss of children. However interest in Kaminski’s unique composition style has led to resurgence in recent performances of his works.

Dutch composer Leo Smit (below) studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and then lived in Paris for a decade before returning to Holland. He was greatly influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky’s innovations and exchanged ideas with fellow composers Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. He enjoyed jazz rhythms and they often are found in his works.

His three-movement Sextet for piano and wind quintet is full of variety, warm melodic lines and fascinating harmonies. With the German invasion during World War II Smit’s circumstances as a Jewish musician deteriorated and he was forbidden to continue as a professional musician. Despite the dire circumstances he continued composing, completing a Sonata for flute and piano in 1943 just prior to his transportation to and death in a concentration camp.

The program ends with a cleverly written piece by German composer Bernhard Sekles (below). The final movement from his Capriccio for violin, cello and piano is titled Yankee-Doodle with variations and a delightful way to conclude the concert. Based in Frankfurt, Sekles was an innovative composer and teacher, and in 1928 became the first European teacher of jazz.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guests Martha Fischer, piano; Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Shannon Farley, viola; Aaron Hill, oboe; and Bernard Parish, clarinet.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play in other professional organizations such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

# # #

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison will perform Slavic music – including several U.S. and world premieres — under a guest Spanish conductor this Saturday night

May 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will perform the program “The Slavic Soul” this coming Saturday night, May 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The Festival Choir will have guest conductor Nikoleta Popova for the event, who is coming from Spain to conduct a program comprised of songs either by Slavic composers or inspired by Slavic music. More about the conductor is below.

Several U.S. premieres are marked with an asterisk and there is one world premiere.

Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors 65 and over; and $10 for students. For information and tickets, go to: https://festivalchoirmadison.squarespace.com/concerts/2018/5/theslavicsoul

Here is the complete program:

THE SLAVIC SOUL

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) – Four Slovak Folk Songs (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1908-1975) – Two Russian Folk Songs. With Anya Gubenkova, alto

Alexander Davidenko (1899–1934) – “At Ten Versts From the Capital”* with Ted Reinke, piano, and Dan Broner, organ

Vera Nasha (Our Faith)* Serbian Folk Song, arr. Yónatan Sánchez Santianes with James McKenzie, percussion

Szymon Godziemba-Trytek (1988) Agnus Dei (World Premiere) with Ted Reinke, organ

Georgy Sviridov (1915–1998) – “A Wondrous Birth”; “Balalaika”; and “Reveille.” With Anya Gubenkova, alto

Dobri Hristov (1875–1941) – “Rachenitsa”

Todor Popov (1921–2000) – “Stara Sa Maika” (The Old Mother)*

“Kalinka,” a Russian Folk Song arranged by Vadim Prokhorov

The guest conductor is Nikoleta Popova (below) of Bulgaria and Spain. She is a renowned specialist in Eastern European and Bulgarian music and has offered seminars and master classes all over the world.

Currently, Popova is Professor in Conducting at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Canarias in Las Palmas, Spain, where she is also music director of the conservatory orchestra and choirs. She has appeared as guest conductor in Austria, Italy, Spain, Poland, and the U.S., as well as her native Bulgaria.

Born in Dobrich, Bulgaria, Nikoleta Popova received her education as a conductor from the National Academy of Music in Sofia, Bulgaria, and from Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Graz. Among her teachers are Eric Whitacre, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Alex Schillings, Klaas Stok, Marco Antonio Da Silva Ramos, and others.

In 2011 Nikoleta Popova received her Ph.D. from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with a dissertation on the performance of the black spiritual. Since 2012, she has published three books in Spanish with in-depth analysis of the problems that singers and conductors face in the interpretation of African-American spirituals.


Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!


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