The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: With actors and multimedia, the Madison Symphony Orchestra explores Felix Mendelssohn in Italy this coming Sunday afternoon

January 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and its music director John DeMain will present the story behind Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” with Beyond the Score®: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy? (Ticket information is further down.)

The concert is a multimedia examination of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s travels through Italy.

Starring American Players Theatre actors Sarah Day (below top), Jonathan Smoots (below middle) and Nate Burger (below bottom), the concert experience features visual projections, photos, musical excerpts and a full performance of the Symphony No. 4 by the MSO, with John DeMain conducting, in the second half.

In 1830, a young 21-year-old Mendelssohn (below) visited the Italian countryside and the historic cities of Venice, Naples and Rome.

Three years later, he set his journey to music and composed his fourth Symphony — later to be known as his “Italian” Symphony. Though it eventually became one of the composer’s most popular works, the piece was performed only twice during his lifetime and published four years after his death in 1851. (You can hear the rousing final movement of the “Italian Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music lovers and newcomers looking for a deeper look into the world of classic music and the motivations of significant compositions, “Beyond the Score®: Why Italy?” joins Mendelssohn on his travels in Italy and discovers his inspiration for this symphonic work.

Incorporating the composer’s own letters and writings, the program presents the historical context behind the classical piece turned masterpiece.

Program notes by J. Michael Allsen are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/4AJan19.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $70 each, available at https://madisonsymphony.org/event/beyond-the-score-mendelssohn/, 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/concerts-events/buy-tickets/group-discounts/.

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 $10 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Exclusive funding for this concert is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians opens its new season with an impressive performance of unusual Baroque concertos in a new venue. Plus, UW students give a FREE concert of opera arias Saturday night.

October 6, 2015
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ALERT: This Saturday night at 7 p.m., voice students from the UW-Madison School of Music will give a FREE and PUBLIC concert of opera arias at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, off the Capitol Square.

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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Madison Bach Musicians gave the first of their three concerts of this season on Saturday night. And this time they did so in a novel venue, Immanuel Lutheran Church (below is the exterior). This handsome space on the near East Side has emerged in recent months as a concert site of growing popularity.

immanuel lutheran church ext

The program was devoted to “Baroque Concertos,” and it was introduced by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below) with his usual wit and insight. (Performance photos are by John W. Barker.)

MBM Trevor Stephenson at Immanuel concertos

The chronological span of the music presented ran from the High Baroque of the late 17th century through the Late Baroque, and even Post-Baroque of the first half of the 18th century.

Of the four works presented, the first one was not a concerto at all, but an extraordinary ensemble piece by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704, below). Many Renaissance and early Baroque composers had created sound paintings — both vocal and instrumental evocations of battle. But Biber’s Battaglia, with its polytonalities, went far beyond anything before, and perhaps since, all the way down to Charles Ives.

Heinrich Biber

The second of its eight short movements evokes a military encampment of an army of very mixed personnel, each celebrating its individuality in a quodlibet or medley piece of eight separate song tunes played simultaneously, in willful chaos. And the penultimate seventh represents the battle itself with surging textures and wild string plucking to suggest gunshots.

The 11 string players, plus Stephenson on the harpsichord, made a whale of a show out of it, all on their elegant “early instruments.”

MBM Biber Battaglia

Throughout the program, the concertmaster, violinist Kangwon Kim (below), played a notable role as the true leader of the ensemble. But she was also given her place as a brilliant soloist — first in the Violin Concerto in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, the most familiar selection in the concert. This she played with her usual sensitivity and stylistic confidence.

Kangwon Kim

The most novel work was a Cello Concerto in A Major by Leonardo Leo (1694-1744, below top), the leader of the important Neapolitan School of instrumental and vocal music in the early 18th century. The least familiar music on the program, this four-movement work gave soloist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom, seated in center) a chance to display a blazing virtuosity.

leonardo leo

MBM Steuart Pincombe in Leo concerto

Finally came a rarely heard work by a well-known composer, Antonio Vivaldi. His Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo, in B-flat (RV 547) gave the vivacious Kim and the fiery Pincombe a perfect duet vehicle for display of their talents. The final movement was dazzling, and if they had repeated it as an encore — which I wish they had done — they would have raised the roof. (You can hear the double concerto by Vivaldi in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

MBM Kim and pIncombe in Vivaldi double concerto

Clearly, Immanuel Lutheran has a growing future as a concert site. And the Madison Bach Musicians are off to a brilliant season. Watch for the annual Christmas concert on Dec. 12, and the correctly scheduled Easter (NOT Christmas) performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah on April 8 and 10; all of these will be at the First Congregational Church.


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson talks about the Baroque concertos that the Madison Bach Musicians will perform this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

September 30, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear apologizes for mistakenly listing this item last week: The weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the historic  First Unitarian Society of Madison, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located at 900 University Bay Drive, begin the new season this week. This coming Friday, Oct. 2, at 12:15-1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium, mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sanuda and pianist-composer Jeff Gibbens will perform songs by Gustav Mahler, Gabriel Faure, Manuel de Falla and Jeff Gibbens.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friend Trevor Stephenson, the founder and artistic director as well as the keyboard player of the Madison Bach Musicians, writes:

The Madison Bach Musicians (below) is thrilled to start its 12th season this weekend with an entire program of baroque concertos for strings. I will be discussing the program today on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Midday program with host Norman Gilliland from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

There will be two performances: this coming Saturday night at 8 p.m. at  Immanuel Lutheran Church (below), 1021 Spaight Street, on the near east side; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at Holy Wisdom Monastery on the far west side at 4200 County M in Middleton. I’ll give pre-concert lectures at both events at 7:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.

Immanuel Lutheran interior

Tickets are $28, $23 for students and seniors over 65, in advance; $30 and $25 respectively at the door. Student rush tickets are $10 and are available 30 minutes before the concert. For information about single tickets and subscriptions, go to:

http://madisonbachmusicians.org/buy-tickets-online/

Our soloists will be MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below top) and internationally renowned baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below bottom).

Kangwon Kim

Steuart Pincombe

Right out of the gate, we’ll dive into a programmatic 17th-century masterpiece, Battalia (Battle, heard played by the renowned Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations in a YouTube video at the bottom) , by Heinrich Biber (below).

Composed around 1673, Battalia’s sequence of epigrams outlines a timeless narrative: from the drunken good humor and singing of disparate songs in several keys at once (long, long before Charles Ives) in the soldiers’ camp, to the sabre rattling of Mars, to the love song (aria) before the battle, to the battle itself, to the lament of the wounded musketeers (the slow descending chromaticism must be the oozing of wounds).

Biber’s sense of just how far to take each scene is what makes the work memorable. His instinct here is unerring in knowing how many repetitions to give a motive before finally closing it with a cadence — Scarlatti and Stravinsky are later masters of this technique.

Heinrich Biber

After Biber, we’ll move on to the elegant and rightly famous Violin Concerto in A minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). Bach learned an immense amount about ritornello form from his careful study of Antonio Vivaldi, whose music we’ll hear from at the end of the program.

In ritornello structure, the band and the soloist trade off sections; the band’s sections are full and fleshed out, more like a crowd or a Greek chorus, the soloist’s material is usually more intricate and virtuosic.

But the soloist and the band are only minimally contrasted in baroque style, since usually the band backs up the soloist and in many performance approaches the soloist will also play along during the band’s louder sections; the feeling is very convivial.

MBM chamber ensemble, April 2015

I’m always amazed by how much Bach’s music is at once thoroughly inspired by Italian music — with its leaps, drive and energy — and yet is never overrun with Italianisms.

Take the opening ritornello of this violin concerto. The first four measures could come from almost any Italian master, and then Bach brilliantly extends and twists and cantilevers the cadence for another 20 measures to set the stage for the soloist’s refined entrance in the upbeats to measure 25.

The Andante middle movement has a compelling, heartbeat-like rhythmic underpinning (regularly punctuated by a swaying figure) in the opening ritornello, which then gives way to the solo violin’s utmost tenderness and rhetorical conviction. The finale is a propulsive gigue in the somewhat unusual meter of 9/8.

Bach1

The piece on our program that very few in the audience will have heard before is the Cello Concerto in A major by Leonardo Leo (below). Leo was born near the end of the 17th century in Naples, where he worked for much of his career, writing primarily both comic and serious operas.

His cello concertos date from around the mid-1730s and are characterized by transparency of texture and form that in some ways make them precursors to the coming neo-classical style of the later 18th-century. It is not certain that he played the cello, but the writing in the concertos is idiomatic, colorful and virtuosic. MBM is delighted that guest cellist Steuart Pincombe has brought this work forward for these concerts.


leonardo leo

The final work is Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat major, RV 547. Vivaldi (below), nicknamed the “Red Priest” because of his magnificent mane of red hair, was of course a spectacularly gifted violinist who wrote hundreds of compositions for that instrument. But he also teamed the violin with the cello on several occasions.

I’m always awed by Vivaldi’s consistently successful use of irregular phrase lengths. The music just seems to roll on out there and be perfectly balanced, but the measure groupings are often in fives or sevens, and not so much in the four-measure groupings that typically connote stability. A few other composers have mastered this technique of hiding wonderfully asymmetrical structures, and J. S. Bach is most notable.

vivaldi

The entire concert will be played on period instruments: gut strings and baroque bows. We’re also delighted to welcome to this concert the specialist on the violone (baroque double bass) Marilyn Fung(below) from Michigan.

Marilyn Fung

 


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