The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is Sept. 11, 2020. Here is music to mark the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks during the coronavirus pandemic. What would you choose?

September 11, 2020
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CORRECTION: The Virtual Gala fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition started last night, and will end on Thursday, Oct. 1 – NOT on Oct. 11, as mistakenly stated in yesterday’s blog headline. Here is a link with more information: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/classical-music-the-worldwide-virtual-and-online-gala-fundraiser-for-the-handel-aria-competition-starts-today-and-runs-through-oct-10-donations-will-be-matched-up-to-2000/

By Jacob Stockinger

Today marks 19 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the basic information, here is a Wikipedia summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks

There are many ways to remember and honor the dead and the injured in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Shanksvillle, Pennsylvania. And in past years, The Ear has offered many different ones.

There are the well-known requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Faure; passions by Bach; and other works.

There are also the pieces especially composed for the commemoration, including “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by John Adams that incorporates police tapes and phone calls, and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11.”

But this year there is the coronavirus to deal with and complicate the commemorations.

Here is a story from NBC News about how the official commemorations, both real and virtual, will be affected by the pandemic.

And somehow in such circumstances, it feels like back to basic is a good approach.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is the most universal piece of mourning that The Ear knows: American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as played by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

It serves to mark 9/11 but perhaps also the more than 190,000 American deaths so far from the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can find other versions and other pieces on YouTube:

What piece would you want to hear to mark this sad and solemn occasion?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here are two extended playlists of American masterpieces

July 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Independence Day – the Fourth of July holiday.

It is a good occasion to listen to classical music by American composers (below), which you can hear much of the day on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But here are two other extended playlists of American classical music:

Here, thanks to a California radio station, is a list with complete performances of some of the best American masterpieces, including the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, the “Afro-American” Symphony by William Grant Still (below), “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein:

https://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2019/07/04/playlist-american-classical-music-for-your-fourth-of-july/

And thanks to Minnesota Public Radio, here are four hours of patriotic music for the holiday: https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2018/06/29/celebrate-the-fourth-of-july-with-our-4hour-patriotic-classical-playlist

Finally, in the YouTube at the bottom is the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak (below), who summered in Spillville, Iowa. He loved hearing and tried to capture sounds of nature, including bird songs, traditional Black spirituals and music by Native Americans.

The Ear especially likes it because it is proof that just as Americans have been influenced by European composers, European composers, European composers have been influenced by American composers.

Do you have a special or favorite piece of classical music to help celebrate the Fourth of July?

What do you like about it?

Leave a comment with a YouTube link if possible?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This summer’s Handel Aria Competition is postponed again — until next summer. But a Virtual Gala with new performances will be held online on Sept. 10

May 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8th Annual Handel Aria Competition (below) has been postponed for a second time — until 2021 — for the safety of our singers, musicians and audience members.

The upper age limit for the competition will be extended when the competition resumes, so that all singers eligible this year can still participate.

We are introducing a new initiative to support the finalists from the past seasons of the competition – all of whom have had their opportunities to perform severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Your assistance in spreading the word would be much appreciated!

Originating in Madison, the Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala will take place online and worldwide on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

While the gala will not actually be live, since it requires editing together many separate elements of video, it will be shared via Facebook Live and also be available on YouTube and our website (see below).

It is our plan to feature professionally recorded Baroque arias specially performed for the occasion by past finalists and winners, as well as some of the videos recorded during the competition itself. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear bass-baritone Jonathan Woody singing an aria from the oratorio “Belshazzar” in 2019.)

We are also going to ask the finalists to record short video quotes about how the Handel Aria Competition has helped their careers, and why they love singing Handel.

Our host will be the Handel Aria Competition’s artistic director — and first prize-winner in 2015 — Sarah Brailey (below), who is also pursuing her doctorate at the UW-Madison.

Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, all of the funds raised during the gala will be shared among the participating singers.

We hope you will join us in showing that we value their talent, and want to help them get through this difficult time.

For news updates and details, go to: https://handelariacompetition.com

 


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Classical music: Today is May 5  — Cinco de Mayo. And here is a work by Mexican composer Gustavo Campa to celebrate the holiday

May 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is May 5 – the colorful Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.

If you don’t know the origins of the holiday and what events sparked it, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

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

Usually the music that celebrates the holiday is popular music or folk music – including mariachi bands and guitar music.

But there is also a good amount of classical music by Mexican composers that can mark the occasion.

In past years, this blog has featured Mexican performing artists such as the terrific pianist Jorge Federico Osorio and the most famous Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

But there are many others.

Perhaps programming and performing more Mexican and Latin American composers and music would help attract Latinx listeners to concert halls once they reopen.

In any case, here is a link to a sampler or compilation of Mexican music found on Spotify:

https://www.classicalmusicindy.org/cinco-de-mayo-playlist/

And here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a lovely “Melody” for violin and orchestra, with a photo essay, by the Mexican composer Gustavo Campa (below) along with a link to his biography:

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

Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Classical music: Here are the classical music nominees for the 2020 Grammy Awards. They make a useful holiday gift guide and highlight the trend toward more diversity

November 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Black Friday followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday — all with special deals and sales.

With that in mind, here is a list of the recently announced nominees in classical music for the 2020 Grammy Awards.

Although it is a self-serving list for a competition sponsored by The Industry, it can also be good way to find holiday gifts to give to others or to receive for yourself.

The list can be useful for spotting trends and finding new releases you may not have heard of.

For example, this year seems especially good for new music or recent works and contemporary composers. You won’t find any Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky or Mahler although you will find Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Berg, Rachmaninoff and Copland.

Another favorite seems to be the rediscovery of older composers such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996, below) whose centennial has become an occasion for bringing his neglected works to the forefront.

You can also see that like the Oscars, the Grammys seem to be paying more attention to women composers and conductors, artists of color and crossovers or mixed and hybrid genres.

For complete lists of all 84 categories, go to this site and click on the categories that interest you: https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/2020-grammy-awards-complete-nominees-list

The 62nd annual Grammy Awards will be presented on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be broadcast live on CBS television.

  1. Best Engineered Album, Classical
    An Engineer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • AEQUA – ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR
    Daniel Shores, engineer; Daniel Shores, mastering engineer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • RILEY: SUN RINGS
    Leslie Ann Jones, engineer; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Bob Hanlon & Lawrence Rock, engineers; Ian Good & Lawrence Rock, mastering engineers (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

  1. Producer Of The Year, Classical
    A Producer’s Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
  • BLANTON ALSPAUGH
  • Artifacts – The Music Of Michael McGlynn (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
    • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Fantaisie Sur La Tempête De Shakespeare (Andrew Davis & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
    • Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
    • Duruflé: Complete Choral Works (Robert Simpson & Houston Chamber Choir)
    • Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices & Novus NY)
    • Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom (Peter Jermihov & PaTRAM Institute Singers)
    • Smith, K.: Canticle (Craig Hella Johnson & Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble)
    • Visions Take Flight (Mei-Ann Chen & ROCO)
  • JAMES GINSBURG (below)
  • Project W – Works By Diverse Women Composers (Mei-Ann Chen and Chicago Sinfonietta)
    • Silenced Voices (Black Oak Ensemble)
    • 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (Jory Vinikour, Scott Speck and Chicago Philharmonic)
    • Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas (Alex Klein and Phillip Bush)
    • Winged Creatures & Other Works For Flute, Clarinet, And Orchestra (Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill, Allen Tinkham and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra)
  • MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN
  • Bates: Children Of Adam; Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (Steven Smith, Erin R. Freeman, Richmond Symphony & Chorus)
    • The Orchestral Organ (Jan Kraybill)
    • The Poetry Of Places (Nadia Shpachenko)
    • Rachmaninoff – Hermitage Piano Trio (Hermitage Piano Trio)
  • MORTEN LINDBERG
  • Himmelborgen (Elisabeth Holte, Kare Nordstoga & Uranienborg Vokalensemble)
    • Kleiberg: Do You Believe In Heather? (Various Artists)
    • Ljos (Fauna Vokalkvintett)
    • LUX (Anita Brevik, Trondheimsolistene & Nidarosdomens Jentekor)
    • Trachea (Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl & Schola Cantorum)
    • Veneliti (Hakon Daniel Nystedt & Oslo Kammerkor)
  • DIRK SOBOTKA
  • Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

 75. Best Orchestral Performance Award to the Conductor and to the Orchestra.

  • BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • COPLAND: BILLY THE KID; GROHG
    Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • TRANSATLANTIC
    Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
  • WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2 and 21
    Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

  1. Best Opera Recording
    Award to the Conductor, Album Producer(s) and Principal Soloists.
  • BENJAMIN: LESSONS IN LOVE & VIOLENCE
    George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; James Whitbourn, producer (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)
  • BERG: WOZZECK
    Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)
  • CHARPENTIER: LES ARTS FLORISSANTS; LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES
    Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
  • PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX
    Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)
  • WAGNER: LOHENGRIN
    Christian Thielemann, conductor; Piotr Beczała, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier & Georg Zeppenfeld; Eckhard Glauche, producer (Festspielorchester Bayreuth; Festspielchor Bayreuth)

  1. Best Choral Performance
    Award to the Conductor, and to the Choral Director and/or Chorus Master where applicable and to the Choral Organization/Ensemble.
  • BOYLE: VOYAGES
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
  • DURUFLÉ: COMPLETE CHORAL WORKS
    Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
  • THE HOPE OF LOVING
    Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
  • SANDER: THE DIVINE LITURGY OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
    Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
  • SMITH, K.: THE ARC IN THE SKY
    Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

  1. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
    For new recordings of works with chamber or small ensemble (twenty-four or fewer members, not including the conductor). One Award to the ensemble and one Award to the conductor, if applicable.
  • CERRONE: THE PIECES THAT FALL TO EARTH
    Christopher Rountree and Wild Up
  • FREEDOM & FAITH
    PUBLIQuartet
  • PERPETULUM
    Third Coast Percussion
  • RACHMANINOFF – HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Hermitage Piano Trio
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Attacca Quartet

79. Best Classical Instrumental Solo Award to the Instrumental Soloist(s) and to the Conductor when applicable.

  • THE BERLIN RECITAL
    Yuja Wang
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO; FIDDLE DANCE SUITE
    Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • THE ORCHESTRAL ORGAN
    Jan Kraybill
  • TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN
    Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

 80. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album  Award to: Vocalist(s), Collaborative Artist(s) (Ex: pianists, conductors, chamber groups) Producer(s), Recording Engineers/Mixers with 51% or more playing time of new material.

  • THE EDGE OF SILENCE – WORKS FOR VOICE BY GYÖRGY KURTÁG
    Susan Narucki (Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister & Nicholas Tolle)
  • HIMMELSMUSIK
    Philippe Jaroussky & Céline Scheen; Christina Pluhar, conductor; L’Arpeggiata, ensemble (Jesús Rodil & Dingle Yandell)
  • SCHUMANN: LIEDERKREIS OP. 24, KERNER-LIEDER OP. 35
    Matthias Goerne; Leif Ove Andsnes, accompanist
  • SONGPLAY
    Joyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter and Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett and Lautaro Greco)
  • A TE, O CARA
    Stephen Costello; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra)

  

  1. Best Classical Compendium
    Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s) and Engineer(s) of over 51% playing time of the album, if other than the artist.
  • AMERICAN ORIGINALS 1918
    John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer
  • LESHNOFF: SYMPHONY NO. 4 ‘HEICHALOS’; GUITAR CONCERTO; STARBURST
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
  • MELTZER: SONGS AND STRUCTURES
    Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers
  • THE POETRY OF PLACES
    Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
  • SAARIAHO: TRUE FIRE; TRANS; CIEL D’HIVER
    Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

  

  1. Best Contemporary Classical Composition
    A Composer’s Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.
  • BERMEL: MIGRATION SERIES FOR JAZZ ENSEMBLE & ORCHESTRA
    Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)
  • HIGDON: HARP CONCERTO
    Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
  • MARSALIS: VIOLIN CONCERTO IN D MAJOR
    Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • SHAW: ORANGE
    Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)
  • WOLFE: FIRE IN MY MOUTH
    Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

 


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: Legendary Austrian pianist and scholar Paul Badura-Skoda dies at 91. In the 1960s, he was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison School of Music

September 28, 2019
4 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Paul Badura-Skoda, the celebrated Austrian pianist who was equally known for his performances and his scholarship, and who was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison in the mid-1960s until 1970, died this past Tuesday at 91.

A Vienna native, Badura-Skoda was especially known for his interpretations of major Classical-era composers who lived and worked in that city including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

He was the only pianist to have recorded the complete sonatas by those composers on both the modern piano and the fortepiano, the appropriate period instrument.

If memory serves, Badura-Skoda’s last appearances in Madison were almost a decade ago for concerts in which he played: the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; a Mozart piano concerto with the UW Chamber Orchestra; and a solo recital of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin at Farley’s House of Pianos.

But he also performed and recorded Bach, Chopin and Schumann among others. And Badura-Skoda was also renowned as a conductor, composer, editor and teacher.

You can find many of his recordings and interviews on YouTube. Normally, this blog uses shorter excerpts. But the legendary Paul Badura-Soda is special. So in the YouTube video at the bottom  you can hear Badura-Skoda’s complete last recital of Schubert (Four Impromptus, D. 899 or Op. 90), Schumann (“Scenes of Childhood”, Op. 15) and Mozart (Sonata in C Minor, K. 457). He performed it just last May at the age of 91 at the Vienna Musikverein, where the popular New Year concerts take place.

Here are links to several obituaries:

Here is one from the British Gramophone Magazine:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-has-died-at-the-age-of-91

Here is one from WFMT radio station in Chicago, which interviewed him:

https://www.wfmt.com/2019/09/26/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-dies-at-age-91/

Here is one, with some surprisingly good details, from Limelight Magazine:

https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/paul-badura-skoda-has-died/

And here is his updated Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Badura-Skoda

But you will notice a couple of things.

One is that The Ear could not find any obituaries from such major mainstream media as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. But each had many other feature stories about and reviews of Badura-Skoda’s concerts over the years in their areas.

The other noteworthy thing is that none of the obituaries mentions Badura-Skoda’s years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, where he helped to raise the profile and prestige of the School of Music. Getting Badura-Skoda to join the university was considered quite an unexpected coup.

So here are two links to UW-Madison press releases that discuss that chapter of his life and career.

Here is an archival story from 1966 when Badura-Skoda first arrived at the UW-Madison:

http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/UW/UW-idx?type=turn&entity=UW.v67i8.p0011&id=UW.v67i8&isize=text

And here is a press release that came from the UW-Madison News Service eight years ago on the occasion of one of Badura-Skoda’s many visits to and performances in Madison:

https://news.wisc.edu/writers-choice-madison-welcomes-badura-skoda-again-and-again/

Rest in Peace, maestro, and Thank You.

It would be nice if Wisconsin Public Radio paid homage with some of Badura-Skoda’s recordings since a complete edition was issued last year on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

If you wish to pay your own respects or leave your memories of Paul Badura-Skoda and his playing, please leave something in the comment section.


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