The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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: UW-Madison’s first countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to perform on Sunday night as a member of the acclaimed choral group Chanticleer. Here’s how he got from here to there. Part 1 of 2 

September 30, 2019
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ALERT: Madison Symphony Orchestra organist Greg Zelek did not announce his encore after he received a standing ovation at the MSO concert Sunday afternoon. It was the final movement from the Organ Symphony No. 1 by Louis Vierne.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the inaugural  concert in the new Hamel Music Center’s main concert hall, the critically acclaimed a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of the San-Francisco-based Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director. (You can hear Pagenkopf singing music by Henry Purcell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a biography of Gerrod Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf (below) is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed here as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each other. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career. So today and tomorrow, The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf.

Here is Part 1:

When were you at the UW-Madison?

I was a student at the UW-Madison from the fall of 1997 until I graduated in May of 2002. Although I received a bachelor’s degree in music education, performing ended up being a huge part of my last few semesters.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Green Bay, I always thought that if you liked music and were good at it, you were supposed to be a teacher. It wasn’t until I was a junior that my voice teacher, the late Ilona Kombrink, and I discovered that I had a viable solo voice. Although I received the music education degree, embarking on a solo career became more important to me.

What did you do and how well did your studies and performances here prepare you for the life of a professional musician?

I was very lucky to have ample opportunities for performing during my time at the UW. Singing in choirs was very important to me. For many years I sang in the Concert Choir under Beverly Taylor (below top) as well as in the Madrigal Singers under Bruce Gladstone (below bottom,, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). I think there was one semester where I sang in just about every auditioned choir.

Beverly Taylor also gave me a lot of solo opportunities in the large-scale works that the Choral Union performed: Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” For a 23-year-old to have those masterworks, along with the B Minor Mass and “Messiah,” on his resume was very impressive.

I was also lucky enough to perform with University Opera, singing in the chorus at first, but then singing a solo role in Handel’s “Xerxes” my final semester, and then returning as an alumni artist to sing Public Opinion in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and several years later Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante.” Director Bill Farlow took a lot of chances on my young, “raw” countertenor voice and gave me several opportunities to succeed.

I should also note the importance of the guidance and mentorship of Professor Mimmi Fulmer (below, performing at Frank Loyd Wright’s Hillside Theater at Taliesin in Spring Green) after I graduated from UW. She afforded me the opportunity to sing in recital with her numerous times — usually Brahms and Mendelssohn duets. But she also was a catalyst in bringing me back to Madison several years later to sing with the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. Our continued relationship is actually the primary reason Chanticleer is singing in Madison this fall.

How do you feel about returning to perform at your alma mater with Chanticleer?

I’m over the moon about it. It still feels like a dream that I’m singing in Chanticleer. To be able to bring a group that I’m so proud to be a part of back to Madison feels like a great personal triumph. And to be the opening performance in the new Hamel Center (below) is such an honor!

Throughout my studies at UW-Madison, I was torn between the solo performance track and the choral career. I managed to straddle both, but my dream was always to make ensemble singing my career. Way back in the early 2000s, I heard Chanticleer sing at Luther Memorial Church, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I went down several other paths since that concert — mostly in the realm of solo, operatic singing — but it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to say I achieved my dream, and I’m coming back to place where the seed of that dream was planted almost 20 years ago.

Tomorrow: How countertenors re-emerged and were treated, the “Trade Winds” program and Pagenkopf’s future plans


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Classical music: This afternoon is the last performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” The critics and public agree: “Don’t miss it!”

May 5, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) perform Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8, called the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

The big work celebrates a big event: The closing of the 25th anniversary season of music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who discussed the Mahler symphony and played recorded excerpts with radio host Norman Gilliland on last Thursday’s edition of The Midday on Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/symphony-thousand

The critics are unanimous in their praise.

Sure, they voice a few minor quibbles here and there.

But mostly they agree: This is a must-hear performance of an epic and complex 90-minute work by Mahler (below) that is rarely heard live because it requires such massive forces and such accomplished performers. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Klaus Tennstedt, the London Philharmonic and soloists perform the finale to the rapturous “Symphony of a Thousand.”)

Specifically, that means that if you go, you will hear more than 500 performers who include: the symphony orchestra; the concert organ; eight highly acclaimed guest vocal soloists; and three choirs, including the University of Wisconsin Choral Union.

But you can see and judge for yourself.

Here is a link to a posting last week on this blog with more information about the concert, the performers and other tickets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/04/29/classical-music-this-coming-weekend-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-and-other-individuals-and-groups-join-forces-to-close-john-demains-25th-season-with-mahlers-monumental-s/

Here is a link to the review of the opening night that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

https://isthmus.com/music/monumental-closer/

Here is a link to the review that Matt Ambrosio wrote for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/madison-symphony-closes-its-season-with-spectacular-symphony-of-a/article_44b26d91-e0f0-5d67-88b9-10cd5e8c5c6d.html

And here are some reviews on Facebook by ordinary listeners and concertgoers:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/MadisonSymphony/posts/

You can also leave your opinion in the comment section of this blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Who are the greatest classical composers? And how do you decide?

November 24, 2018
6 Comments

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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s holiday tradition of the “Community Carol Sing,” with organist Greg Zelek, is FREE and open to the public of all ages. It takes place in Overture Hall at 7 p.m. this Monday night, Nov. 26. No tickets or reservations are needed for the hour-long Carol Sing. For more information, including a list of the carols on the program, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/free-community-carol-sing/

By Jacob Stockinger

Who are the greatest composers of classical music?

Who are the most influential composers?

And which composer is the greatest of all time?

Just as important, how do you decide? How do you pick them and make your choice?

And finally, should such choices matter?

You could ask Anthony Tommasini (below), senior classical music critic for The New York Times  — who came to the UW-Madison during the Pro Arte Quartet centennial several years ago and lectured in the Wisconsin Union Theater — who has just published a new book about those very questions.

The new book is “The Indispenable Composers: A Personal Guide” (below) and is published by Penguin Books. (It could make a nice holiday gift for a classical music fan.)

In a recent story, Tommasini – who readily admits to the project being very much a subjective game – discussed the process, which comes in the wake of his publishing a two-week project in 2011 when he named the 10 greatest composers of all time.

This time he uses (below, from left) Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven and Edvard Grieg as test cases for asking: Who is a great composer, and how do you know or decide what makes a composer great?

The Ear doesn’t agree with all the results, but he found it a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion, and figures you might too:

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/arts/music/anthony-tommasini-classical-music.html

Read the overview story, and then leave word if you agree with Tommasini about the greatest of all composers. (A clue is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Which composers would you include that he didn’t?

Who did he include whom you wouldn’t?

And let’s play along: Which composers would be on your own personal list of the Top 5 or Top 10 indispensable composers? And in what order?

Have fun!

And, pro or con, don’t be shy in saying what you think. The more controversial and stronger the opinion and the words, the better.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What is it like to play music with a spouse? Local wife-and-husband violinist and cellist open the winter Masterworks season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Brahms Double Concerto this Friday night

January 22, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. — NOT 7 as first stated here mistakenly — in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom) will open the WCO’s winter Masterworks season.

The program is typical of Sewell’s eclecticism. It features well-known and lesser-known works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

It includes the Sinfonia in A minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach; the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, by Arnold Schoenberg; and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102, by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets run $15-$80 with $10 student tickets available.

For more information about the concert, the performers, tickets and pre-concert dinners, call (608) 257-0638 or go to the website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-3/

The highlight of the concert is sure to be the wife-and-husband team who are soloists in the Brahms concerto. They are violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and cellist Leonardo, or Leo, Altino, who teaches full-time at the Wheaton College Conservatory near Chicago and occasionally privately in Madison.  Together they have also recorded for the MSR Classics label the CD “En Voyage” with sonatas for violin and cello by Zoltan Kodaly, Maurice Ravel and Paul Desenne.

If a small ensemble such as a string quartet or piano trio has special personal dynamics to contend with, imagine how intense a husband-and-wife pairing can be.

What is it like for spouses to make music together?

That is what The Ear wanted to explore and the two soloists (below) graciously responded with the following Q&A:

Is playing together any different from playing separately or alone? How so?

Soh-Hyun: Playing together and separately are completely different experiences because of the types of listening that are involved. When we play together, our ears are immediately drawn to how our playing is matched or not in terms of articulation, shape, and decay of the notes and phrases.

We have different strengths and weaknesses that we’re now well aware of after 16 years of playing together, and we naturally rely on each other’s strengths in preparing for performances.  We have played together a lot in string quartets, piano trios  and also as a duo; I definitely feel at ease if Leo is part of the ensemble.

Leo: Absolutely! Allow me to explain it this way. Preparing for a concert is much like preparing a great meal. There are a lot of steps that go into it. You must have a clear idea or vision of what dishes you want to serve, how they complement each other, what ingredients to get, the quality of the ingredients, the proportions when combining, prepping the ingredients and on and on.

Playing together is like cooking with someone whom you’ve cooked with for decades. We anticipate each other’s moves a lot better. There is little explaining needed. We have performed together during the entirety of our marriage, and it has brought us closer together musically and emotionally. We come easily to agreement on musical issues, but we also agree philosophically – why we play and how we view each performance. We also support each other a lot and have become each other’s best teacher.

How do you resolve differences of interpretation and other issues in a given work or score?

Leo: We try each other’s ideas wholeheartedly. We make sure to give our best effort to each other’s ideas, make suggestions and try again if necessary, and often record ourselves playing so that we can be more objective. Then we make the decisions together. Sometimes, we simply go with the person with the stronger opinion about a passage.

Soh-Hyun: In the beginning of our relationship, we used to talk a lot to explain our interpretations and how to play them. Now we are convinced that the end results that we want in any passages are pretty similar; therefore, there is less talking and more trusting.

From time to time when our ideas do seem different, we go straight to recording ourselves and listen to it together. That usually stops any further arguments.  On a practical level, as parents of a seven-year-old, rehearsing together is often costly; we either need a babysitter or rehearse late in the evening. This encourages us to be efficient in our discussions and listen better in order to resolve our differences.

What role has making music together played in your relationship and your marriage?

Leo: Because we’ve played so much together, we have learned a lot about one another – how we think, what we value, each other’s pet peeves, etc. Music has helped us learn to talk – even resolve conflicts – about things that we each feel passionate about in a constructive way. (You can hear them play part of the Piano Trio No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soh-Hyun: We are both teachers of music, and that means that we are in the business of helping others listen and play better. I think in the first several years of our relationship, I used to struggle a lot with receiving constructive criticism from Leo. I guess I felt as though I should have been able to fix the problems myself.

But now I feel lucky that I can have a free lesson whenever I want. It’s common that I will pop into the kitchen and say, “Which sounds better?” and play a few different versions of a passage. Leo gives me his preference and even tries out the passage holding my violin like a cello (which, by the way, I don’t always feel at ease about).

What else would you like to say about performing together, the Brahms Double Concerto, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or any other topic?

Leo: This was the first piece we performed together after we got married. It’s wonderful to go back to it after all these years. Writing a concerto for two solo instruments is a big challenge for any composer. The way Brahms (below) wrote for the violin and cello is almost like describing the relationship between two people who know each other deeply. Each has a unique personality. The two argue, but ultimately discover how to have a unified voice.

For example, the concerto begins with a dramatic cadenza in the cello, which winds down at the end to prepare for the more introspective entrance of the violin. The two instruments exchange ideas, raise their voices, and soon culminate in a unified manner at the end of their cadenza to invite the orchestra in.

It is a powerful and beautiful piece. I also think that great composers like Brahms wrote pieces like this almost like a tone poem in that every voice has a very significant role. Often during the concerto, even while the soloists are playing, other instruments may have equal or more important parts.

BOTH: It’s an honor to perform the Double Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell, and we’re really looking forward to our working together this week.


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