The Well-Tempered Ear

The Madison Early Music Festival joins the UW-Madison School of Music’s regular program and undergoes a major revamping. There will be no more separate summer events, and the two directors will retire next spring

March 10, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

After refining the format over the past 20 years, the Madison Early Music Festival (below) has grown into a popular event that is recognized regionally, nationally and internationally. It usually takes place for about 10 days in July.

But no longer.

The Ear has received the following updates from the two co-founders and co-directors, singers Cheryl-Bensman Rowe and UW-Madison Professor Paul Rowe.

Curiously, no reasons or causes are given for the major changes and revamping, or for the cancellation of the event this summer.

The Ear suspects it has something to do with the lack of funding and the reorganizations and consolidations being carried out because of the budgetary effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the UW-Madison, the whole UW System and the performing arts scene in general.

But that could be completely wrong. We will probably find out more details in the near future.

For more information and background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2021/02/01/memf-school-of-music-announce-administrative-partnership/

And to sound off, please leave your reactions to the news in the comment section.

Here is the letter from the Rowes (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot):

Dear MEMF Supporters,

It is difficult to believe that February is over and spring is on its way. We hope everyone is having luck scheduling coronavirus vaccines, and that you have all stayed healthy throughout this past year. 

We are writing to give you advance notice of the latest MEMF news before you read it in an upcoming press release.

Due to programming realignment in the UW-Madison Division of the Arts, the Madison Early Music Festival will become a program of the Mead Witter School of Music, which will be our new administrative home.

After much discussion with the Director of the School of Music and the Interim Director of the Division of the Arts, the details of the move have been finalized. 

The School of Music is excited to bring MEMF into its programming, and would like MEMF to be an integral part of the academic year so more students can have an opportunity to work with professionals in the field of early music.

At this point, in order to focus on this goal, the decision has been made to discontinue the summer festival in its current (pre-pandemic) format.(You can hear a sample of that in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We know this is disappointing news, but at the same time we are excited that MEMF concerts, lectures and classes will now be offered in some capacity throughout the year. 

Although MEMF will be taking a different direction than the one we have all known and loved over the past 20 years, we are thrilled that it will continue to provide early music learning and presentation opportunities through this new collaboration.

We also want to announce that the two of us will be retiring from MEMF in the spring of 2022 and new leadership will take the helm. 

Current plans are to present a celebratory MEMF concert and workshop next spring with School of Music students and faculty and former MEMF participants and faculty.

We want all of you to know that we appreciate everything you have done for MEMF. Some of you have been involved for 21 years! 

We are grateful for your support, the friendships we have made, and all the beautiful music we have heard and made together. The success of the festival would not have been possible without each and every one of you.

This is an exciting new journey for MEMF, although different from what we have known and experienced. We hope that you will continue to be involved in MEMF in its new format, and we hope to see you in the spring of 2022!

Thank you for all your generosity in so many ways,

Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and Paul Rowe, co-founders and co-artistic directors of the Madison Early Music Festival


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Here is a collaborative obituary for music critic, radio host, performer and gay pioneer Jess Anderson, who died in January at 85

March 7, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

In late January of this year, Jess Anderson (below) — a longtime friend, devoted musician and respected music critic – died at 85.

The Ear promised then that when more was known or written, it would be posted on this blog.

That time has come.

Jess was a polymath, a Renaissance Man, as the comments below attest to time and again.

For the past several years, he suffered from advancing dementia and moved from his home of 56 years to an assisted living facility. He had contracted COVID-19, but died from a severe fall from which he never regained consciousness.

Jess did not write his own obituary and he had no family member to do it. So a close friend – Ed Wegert (below) – invited several of the people who knew Jess and worked with him, to co-author a collaborative obituary. We are all grateful to Ed for the effort the obituary took and for his caring for Jess in his final years.

In addition, the obituary has some wonderful, not-to-be-overlooked photos of Jess young and old, at home, with friends, sitting at the piano and at his custom-built harpsichord.

It appears in the March issue of Our Lives, a free statewide LGBTQ magazine that is distributed through grocery stores and other retail outlets as well as free subscriptions. Here is a link to the magazine’s home webpage for details about it: https://ourliveswisconsin.com.

That Jess was an exceptional and multi-talented person is obvious even from the distinguished names of the accomplished people who contributed to the obituary:

They include:

Chester Biscardi (below), who is an acclaimed prize-winning composer, UW-Madison graduate, composer and teacher of composition at Sarah Lawrence College.

John Harbison (below), the MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches at MIT and co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the summer.

Rose Mary Harbison (below), who attended the UW-Madison with Jess and became a professional performing and teaching violinist who co-directs the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Steve Miller (below), a close friend who became a bookmaker and is now a professor at the University of Alabama.

The Ear, who knew Jess over many decades, was also invited to contribute.

Here is a link to the joint obituary in Our Lives magazine, a free LGBTQ periodical that you can find in local grocery store and other retail outlets: https://ourliveswisconsin.com/article/remembering-jess-anderson/?fbclid=IwAR027dzv2YqRUNlYF1cF6JyXnEcQxAwcprPYbtBQCs3rYt0Nu847W_xbjpk

Feel free to leave your own thoughts about and memories of Jess in the comment section.

It also seems a fitting tribute to play the final chorus from The St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. You can hear it in the YouTube video below. It is, if memory serves me well, the same piece of sublime music that Jess played when he signed off from hosting his Sunday morning early music show for many years on WORT-FM 89.9.

 


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Here are the Top 10 online concerts to stream in March, according to critics for the New York Times

March 2, 2021
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ALERT: The online live-streamed concert by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet — scheduled for this Friday night, March 5 — in the all-Beethoven cycle of string quartets has been canceled and postponed until next year. The Friday, April 9 installment of the Beethoven cycle will be held as Installment 7 instead of 8.  

By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music critics of The New York Times have once again picked their Top 10 online concerts for the month of March.

The Ear has found such lists helpful for watching and hearing, but also informative to read, if you don’t actually “attend” the concert.

If you have read these lists before, you will see that this one is typical.

It offers lots of links with background about the works and performers; concert times (Eastern); and how long the online version is accessible.

Many of the performers will not be familiar to you but others – such as pianist Mitsuko Uchida (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for the Times), who will perform an all-Schubert recital, will be very familiar.

But the critics once again emphasize new music and even several world premieres – including one by Richard Danielpour — and a path-breaking but only recently recorded live performance of the 1920 opera “Die Tote Stadt” (The Dead City) by long-neglected composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below), who is best known for his Hollywood movie scores but who also wrote compelling classical concert hall music. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear soprano Renée Fleming sing “Marietta’s Song.’)

But some works that are more familiar by more standard composers – including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel and Copland – are also included.

The Times critics have also successfully tried to shine a spotlight on Black composers and Black performers, such as the clarinetist and music educator Anthony McGill (below top), who will perform a clarinet quintet by composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below) and music in the setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

No purists, the critics also suggest famous oboe and clarinet works in transcriptions for the saxophone by composer-saxophonist Steven Banks (below).

Also featured is a mixed media performance of words and music coordinated by the award-winning Nigerian-American novelist, essayist and photographer Teju Cole (below), whose writings and photos are irresistible to The Ear.

Here is a link to the story in the Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/arts/music/classical-music-streaming-concerts.html

Are there other online concerts in March – local, regional, national or international – that you recommend in addition to the events listed in the Times?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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The UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE online concert Thursday night and Friday night the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra debuts its second chamber music concert. But in-person micro-concerts on Sunday by the the Willy Street Chamber Players are sold-out

February 24, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The second half of the music season is well under way, with just about every major group performing online – or in one case even in person.

Here are three selections this week:

THURSDAY

Two of the most musically and technically impressive concerts The Ear heard last semester took place at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. They were by the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Oriol Sans (below).

First, Sans conducted a socially distanced and virtual all-strings concert (below).

Then, for the second concert, the conductor had the winds and brass – which spray dangerous aerosol droplets – record their parts individually. Then for the live performance, Sans donned earphones and masterfully combined all the forces into a full orchestra performance (below).

You can see similar results – with percussion joining for the strings for the last piece — this Thursday night, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. on YouTube when the UW Symphony Orchestra live-streams a 90-muinute concert from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center. No in-person attendance is allowed.

Here is the program:

I Crisantemi (Chyrsanthemums) by Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), with Michael Dolan, guest conductor

“Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” by contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) Coqueteos (Flirtations)

“Carmen” Suite (after the opera by Georges Bizet) by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932): Introduction; Dance; Carmen’s entrance and Habanera Torero; Adagio; Fortune-telling; and Finale.

Here is a link to the live-streamed video: https://youtu.be/GSrMLKrjlVg

And here is a link to more information, including program notes and the names of members of the orchestra: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-2/

FRIDAY NIGHT

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) will offer the second of its Winter Chamber Series. It will run between 60 and 75 minutes.

There will be string, brass and percussion music by Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Steve Reich, Craig H. Russell and Thomas Siwe. Be aware that three of the works – string quartets by Mozart and Beethoven and a string sonata by Rossini — are presented in excerpts. That is not listed on the webpage.

The cost for one-time access between Friday night and Monday night is $30.

Here is a link to more information, including a link to ticket sales from the Overture Center box office and program notes by WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz): https://wcoconcerts.org/events/winter-chamber-series-no-ii

SOLD-OUT

The Micro-concerts scheduled for this coming Sunday, Feb. 28, by the esteemed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), are SOLD-OUT.

The 10-minute private concerts for two, which require masks and social distancing for all, are perhaps the most innovative move by any local music group during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ear, who expects concert habits to change after the pandemic, thinks such micro-concerts have a very bright future even after the pandemic is under control and audiences can return safely to mass events.

The concert are pay-what-you can but a $20 donation for two was suggested.

For more information about the micro-concerts, listen to the YouTube video at the bottom and go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/micro-concerts.html

 


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New York Times critics choose 10 online classical music concerts to stream in February, starting this Thursday

February 2, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

As they have done for previous months during the coronavirus pandemic, the classical music critics for The New York Times have named their top 10 choices of online concerts to stream in February, which is also Black History Month, starting this Thursday, Feb. 4.

Also predictably, they focus on new music – including a world premiere — new conductors and new composers, although “new” doesn’t necessarily mean young in this context.

For example, the conductor Fabio Luisi (below) is well known to fans of Richard Wagner and the Metropolitan Opera. But he is new to the degree that just last season he became the new conductor of Dallas Symphony Orchestra and its digital concert series.

Similarly, the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (below top, in a photo by Saara Vuorjoki) and the American composer Caroline Shaw (below bottom, in a photo by Kait Moreno), who has won a Pulitzer Prize, have both developed reputations for reliable originality.

But chances are good that you have not yet heard of the young avant-garde cellist Mariel Roberts (below top) or the conductor Jonathon Heyward (below bottom).

Nor, The Ear suspects, have you probably heard the names and music of composers Angélica Negrón (below top), who uses found sounds and Tyshawn Sorey (below bottom). (You can sample Negrón’s unusual music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Of course, you will also find offerings by well-known figures such as the Berlin Philharmonic and its Kurt Weill festival; conductor Alan Gilbert; pianists Daniil Trifonov and Steven Osborne; violinist Leonidas Kavakos; and the JACK Quartet.

Tried-and-true composers are also featured, including music by Beethoven, Schnittke, Weber, Ravel and Prokofiev. But where are Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel? No one seems to like Baroque music. 

Here is a link to the events with links and descriptions. All times are Eastern: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/arts/music/classical-music-streaming.html

Do you have other virtual and online concerts to suggest? Please leave details in the Comment sections.

 


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Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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Here is a comprehensive overview of classical music in 2020. It includes deaths, virtual seasons, world premieres, major awards, new albums and other noteworthy events

December 31, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The last day of a year, especially a year as tragic and eventful for the arts as 2020, seems a good time for a retrospective.

For many years, Wikipedia has done a fine job of collating noteworthy classical music events, both nationally and internationally.

Organized by categories and then by month and day, the events include deaths, many from COVID-19 of course. 

The list also includes the world premieres of new operas and new works in other musical genres. (You can hear “From the Diary of Anne Frank  and “Meditations on Rilke” by the American conductor, educator and composer Michael Tilson Thomas — below in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The list, which has 567 footnotes and citations, includes cancellations, staff changes, virtual and online concert seasons and other fallout from the coronavirus. And they include awards for new recordings.

If you hover the cursor over names in blue print, you will also get specific details or biographical information with a portrait or photo in many cases. Then click on the blue name and you will go to the organization’s or individual’s home website.

The Ear finds it very useful as a year-in-review and hopes you do too.

Take a look for yourself. And here’s hoping that both artists and the arts thrive better in the coming new year of 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_in_classical_music

What do you think of the Wikipedia list?

How did it leave you feeling?

Do you have something to add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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NPR names relevant classical albums in a musical Diary of the Plague Year of the pandemic, racial protests, wildfires and hurricanes

December 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For an unusual and difficult year, NPR (National Public Radio) and critic Tom Huizenga have found a new and unusual way to recommend this past year’s top classical music recordings.

On the  “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR, Huizenga kept a personal month-by-month diary of “music and mayhem.”

For last February, for example, this ancient image of The Dance of Death inspired contemporary composer Thomas Adès to compose his own “Totentanz” or Dance of Death. (You can hear an excerpt from the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Some of the thematically-related music is modern or contemporary, some of it is from the Baroque or Classical era.

In June, as protests against the death of George Floyd (below top) flared up and spread worldwide, NPR names a recording of the “Negro Folk Symphony” by African-American composers William Dawson and Ulysses Kay (below bottom), thereby helping to rediscover Black composers whose works have been overlooked and neglected in the concert hall and the recording studio.

Devastating wildfires on the West Coast, Presidential impeachment and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast also found their way into the choices of music to listen to.

It is an unusual approach, but The Ear thinks it works.

See and hear for yourself by going to the sonic diary and listening to the samples provided.

Here is a link to the NPR album diary: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/12/21/947149286/music-and-mayhem-a-diary-of-classical-albums-for-a-troubled-2020

But many roads, if not all, lead to Rome, as they say.

What is also interesting is that a number of the NPR choices overlap with ones listed by music critics of The New York Times as the 25 best classical albums of 2020.

Some choices also are found on the list of the nominations for the Grammy Awards that will be given out at the end of January.

In other words, the NPR diary can also serve as yet another holiday gift guide if you have gift cards or money to buy some new and notable CDs, and are looking for recommendations.

Here is a link to the Times’ choices, which you can also find with commentary and a local angle, in yesterday’s blog post: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/12/27/the-new-york-times-names-the-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2020-and-includes-sample-tracks/

And here is a list to the Grammy nominations: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

What do you think of the NPR musical diary of the plague year?

Do you find it informative? Accurate? Interesting? Useful?

Would you have different choices of music to express the traumatic events of the past year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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The New York Times names the top 25 classical recordings of 2020 and includes sample tracks

December 27, 2020
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FOWARD 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

What did the holidays bring you?

Did Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa bring you a gift card?

A subscription to a streaming service?

Maybe some cash?

Or maybe you just want to hear some new music or new musicians or new interpretations of old classics?

Every year, the music critics of The New York Times list their top 25 recordings of the past year. Plus at the end of the story, the newspaper offers a sample track from each recording to give you even more guidance.

This year is no exception (below).

In fact, the listing might be even more welcome this year, given the  coronavirus pandemic with the lack of live concerts and the isolation and self-quarantine that have ensued.

The Ear hasn’t heard all of the picks or even the majority of them. But the ones he has heard are indeed outstanding. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a sample of the outstanding Rameau-Debussy recital by the acclaimed Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafssen, who scored major successes with recent albums of Philip Glass and Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

Of course not all critics agree.

The Ear has already listed the nominations for the Grammy Awards (a link is below), and more critics’ picks will be featured in coming days.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

You should also notice that a recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” — featuring soprano Sarah Brailey (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and a co-founder of Just Bach — is on the Times’ list as well as on the list of Grammy nominations.

What new recordings – or even old recordings — would you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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The New York Times music critics suggest 10 must-hear online classical concerts during December

November 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow is Dec. 1, 2020.

Lately, at the end of every month the music critics for The New York Times publish a list of 10 virtual and online classical concerts for the following month that they think deserve special attention.

Often – but not always — their choices feature the unusual: new music and world premieres; neglected repertoire; and lesser-known performers that most of us are not likely to hear locally.

The December choices, for example, include an oratorio “Perle Noire” (Black Pearl), by composer Tyshawn Sorey, about the famous African-American, Paris-based expat dancer Josephine Baker – she of the banana skirt (below). But she was more than just  a risqué dancer and entertainer. She fought in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis and was a civil rights champion.

But this list also includes seasonal fare such the holiday tradition by which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs in one night all six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (you can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom); and other holiday celebrations such as a concert by the early music vocal group Tenet (below, in a photo by Nan Melville.)

But those suggestions do not take away from more local efforts and performances. 

The Ear is certain that those same critics would approve of supporting local musicians and music groups during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And there are many local offerings. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, the Madison Bach Musicians and Just Bach all have virtual online concerts scheduled for December.

You can check out their offerings at their websites and here on this blog as the month unfolds.

But if the Times’ choices interest you – and they should — here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/arts/music/classical-music-stream-december.html

Note that the blurbs show Eastern Time but also include how long the performances are posted for and links to the organizations presenting the concerts. 

Happy listening!

And Happy Holidays!

Do you have other online performances – local, regional, national or international — to suggest?

Please leave the necessary information in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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