The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeBrn_kwvfg

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This summer, Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” will go virtual and be held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Details will follow in early July

May 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Opera about this summer’s annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill.)

“Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park will be moving online this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the first Opera in the Park concert in 2002, it has become a Madison summer tradition, a free concert that draws over 10,000 people to Garner Park for selections from opera, Broadway, operetta and zarzuela. The 19th anniversary of this concert had been scheduled for July 25.”

(Editor’s note: As you can see in the YouTube video at the bottom, the traditional encore has the audience and soloists singing “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from the musical “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Opera in the Park is by far our most important performance,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), general director of the Madison Opera. “Sharing music under the stars is a highlight of every summer, but the health and safety of our community is our first priority. After careful discussion with local officials and stakeholders, we have decided to take the necessary step of moving from an in-person performance this summer to a digital one.

“Details on the digital performance will be solidified in the coming months and announced in early July.

“Soloists to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra include: soprano Karen Slack (below top), who returns to Madison Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) this fall; soprano Jasmine Habersham (below middle), who makes her Madison Opera debut in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April; and baritone Weston Hurt (below bottom), who sang Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and returns as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore next fall.

“While nothing will ever equal the magic of Opera in the Park when the hillside is full of people,” Smith says, “I know we can create something special to share, using the power of music to connect us even when we cannot gather in person.

“We look forward to returning to Garner Park next summer, and seeing a full display of everyone’s light-stick conducting skills (below).”

 


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Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2020-21 season and plans for Opera in the Park on July 25. Plus, today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. What music would you choose to mark the event?

April 22, 2020
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ALERT: Today, April 22, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was founded by Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator. To celebrate it, in the YouTube video at the bottom is “The Earth Prelude” — a long work, both Neo-classical and minimalist, with beautiful photos, by the best-selling, award-winning Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. It has more than 2.3 million views.

What music would you listen to to mark the event? Leave suggestions with YouTube links, if possible, in the Comment section.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has just announced its upcoming 2020-21 season.

As usual, there are three works. The fall and spring operas take place in Overture Hall and the winter production, a Broadway musical, will use the Capitol Theater.

Below are the titles with links to Wikipedia entries for more information about the works and their creators:

Here are the titles:

“Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour) – with the popular “Anvil Chorus” — by Giuseppe Verdi (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 8, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_trovatore

“She Loves Me” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (below) – the same team that created “Fiddler on the Roof” — in the Capitol Theater on Friday night, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Jan. 31, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in English with projected text.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She_Loves_Me

“The Marriage of Figaro,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) in Overture Hall on Friday night, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Figaro

You can see a short preview peek — with music but no word about casts, sets or production details — on Vimeo by using the following link: https://vimeo.com/398921274

For more forthcoming information about the season, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

OPERA IN THE PARK

You may recall that this spring the Madison Opera had to cancel its production of “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about this summer’s 19th annual Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

It is still slated for Saturday, July 25, in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side, with a rain date of Sunday, July 26.

But the opera company is being understandably cautious and says: “At this time, we are proceeding with Opera in the Park as scheduled.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community are our top priority, and we are closely following the guidelines and recommendations of public health officials. We are prepared to make necessary decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions.

“We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate these circumstances.”

For updates and more information about Opera in the Park, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2019-2020-season/oitp2020/

 


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Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society cancels its “Riches to Rags” chamber music season this June and postpones it until next June

April 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s 29th season will become our 30th season celebration next year. We’ll re-engage and present our entire 2020 season, as closely as possible, with the same stellar musicians, in 2021.

We would love nothing more than present our 29th season to you live and in person as we planned. But, dear friends, never fear!

We, at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, have always been light on our feet, nimble in the face of challenge, flexible throughout changing fortunes and venues, and we have a few tricks up our sleeve.

Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) are already planning for new musical treats as soon as we are permitted. You can look forward to some creative collaborations that we’re cooking up for August — if it’s safe to do so — and a special celebratory mini-season over the holidays in late December. We’ll get there together!

All of us in the arts community have been upended by postponements and cancellations, but BDDS will survive this tsunami because of the unending and generous support of so many of you.

We have been buoyed by so many ticket orders and we ask for your consideration for unused tickets:

  1. Make your tickets, or a portion thereof, a tax-deductible donation to BDDS (benefitting you and us!). Per Wisconsin law, if we don’t hear from you in 90 days (July 8), we are permitted to assume that you want your tickets donated back to BDDS and we will send you a letter for tax purposes. Or simply click on the address below and provide your contact information and your preference.
crownover@bachdancinganddynamite.org
  1. Request a refundWe’re happy to provide your money back, and look forward to seeing you again in 2021!

Samantha Crownover, Executive Director

Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society: Chamber Music with a Bang!

P.O. Box 2348

Madison, WI  53701

608.255.9866 office

bachdancinganddynamite.org


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Classical music: This summer’s Madison Early Music Festival in July has been cancelled and postponed until next summer

April 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) to share:

Dear MEMF Family,

Due to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s decision to

suspend in-person courses, workshops and conferences

for the summer term because of the ongoing COVID-19

pandemic, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF)

has been postponed until July 10–17, 2021.

 

This extraordinary situation has affected all of us and

we will miss seeing you this summer. Updates will be

posted on our website as they are available.

 

 

 

As you can imagine, this was a difficult decision

but a necessary one. We will miss sharing

the Burgundian experience with everyone —

MEMF is always the highlight of our summer.

 

We already miss our community of participants

gathering together in Madison, listening to concerts

in the new Hamel Music Center, learning from

our extraordinary faculty, dancing together in Great Hall

and relaxing on the Union Terrace. (In the YouTube video

at the bottom is an excerpt from the All-Festival Concert last year.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news is, we have decided to simply move

the scheduled program forward to next season.

We sincerely hope that The Good, the Bold and the

Fearless: Musical Life at the Burgundian Court

will feature the same guest artists and faculty next year

and we hope you will be able to join us in 2021.

 

In the meantime, the Madison Early Music Festival

will continue to operate. For those who have already

registered, we will contact you about issuing refunds

and answering any other questions you might have.

 

Finally, we appreciate your support — you are the reason

that MEMF continues to offer such extraordinary programming,

concerts and instruction year after year. But we appreciate it

even more now.

 

If you can make a donation to help offset some

of the costs that this year’s Festival can’t recoup,

we would be extremely grateful. Your gift today

will ensure that we can return “better than ever” next year.

 

Please stay safe and healthy,

Cheryl, Paul and Sarah

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, Co-Artistic Directors (below)

Sarah Marty, Program Director

 


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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Classical music: The coronavirus forces the cancellation of Bach Around the Clock plus concerts by pianist Drew Petersen and violinist Gil Shaham. Other groups will wait and see. Read local and national overviews

March 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The pandemic of the coronavirus (below, from by the federal Centers for Disease Control) has now put Wisconsin into a public health emergency, as declared Thursday morning by Gov. Tony Evers, and continues to take its toll on the local art scene – and does so very quickly.

Since yesterday, the threat posed by the coronavirus and COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of three more major musical events:

The biggest is the cancellation of Bach Around the Clock 2020 on Saturday, March 28.

BATC is the FREE annual event celebrating the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It runs for 12 hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and offers dozens of performances by student, amateur and professional musicians.

A Saturday night concert and Sunday afternoon master class by up-and-coming pianist Drew Petersen (below)  — for the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos– has been cancelled and postponed until the summer.

And the March 28 recital by violinist Gil Shaham (below) and pianist Akira Eguchi at the Wisconsin Union Theater has been cancelled

Some other major groups are taking a wait-and-see approach about cancelling events. They include: the Madison Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You can read more about them, and about other local arts events, including pop music as well as museum openings and exhibitions, in a comprehensive overview by Michael Muckian in Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/news/news/coronavirus-impacts-arts-events/

And here is an excellent story from National Public Radio (NPR) about the national context of how the Coronavirus is impacting the arts across the U.S. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/12/814992409/in-the-age-of-covid-19-event-cancellations-precipitate-a-large-economic-impact

DETAILS ABOUT POSTPONEMENTS AND REFUNDS

Here is the announcement from BATC artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below):

“Dear friends and colleagues,

“We on the BATC board have been carefully monitoring this rapidly-developing situation:  the exponentially increasing number of cases being diagnosed in the U.S., the recommendations from the medical community, and responses from other organizations large and small.

“After careful consideration, we have decided, regretfully, that the most responsible course of action is to cancel the BATC festival this March.

“We on the board are so grateful to the performers, hosts and donors, who have invested time, talent and resources in this year’s festival. Our hope is to reschedule for a date in the fall. Stand by for more information on that soon.

“But for now, we ask for your understanding.

“I hope, even though we can’t celebrate his music together on the March 28, that we will all find ways to enjoy Bach’s music this month.”

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and facebook.com/batcmadison

Here are details about the Drew Petersen cancellations:

“Sadly, we are postponing both the Drew Petersen concert on March 14 and his master class on March 15 until the summer.

“New dates for the concert and master class are yet to be determined. We will announce them via email, the Salon Piano Series website and on social media for the Salon Piano Series.

“We know you’ll understand that our concern for your health and well-being made this decision necessary.

“You may request a refund or keep your ticket for the concert in the summer. Everyone who bought a ticket will have one week after the announcement of the new concert date to request a refund.

“If you would like a refund immediately, please follow the instructions below. Please allow several business days for refunds to be processed.

Paper Tickets: If you have a paper ticket, please take a photo of your ticket and email the photo to cristofori@salonpianoseries.org

explaining that you would like a refund.

Online Tickets: “If the ticket is not part of a season ticket, call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.

If your ticket is part of a season ticket, contact Salon Piano Series at 608-271-2626. Refunds for season ticket holders will be issued through Salon Piano Series by check, not through Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets Ordered by Phone

If you purchased a ticket by phone, contact Salon Piano Series at 608 271-2626 to request a refund.


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


Posted in Classical music
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