The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.

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Classical music: Is clapping between movements appropriate or inappropriate? Do performers like it or not?

July 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Some classical music fans complain about there being too much applause and too many standing ovations these days.

And some of those fans are also really embarrassed by audience members who interrupt a performance to applaud.

Yet twice in the past week or so, The Ear heard musicians give the nod to the audience applauding or clapping between movements or pieces in a set.

One was the internationally renowned arranger and conductor of the All-Festival Concert that concluded the Madison Early Music Festival. The other was a member of the Willy Street Chamber Players.

Both musicians basically said that there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Applauding between movements, it turns out, was a frequent event in history. Disapproval nowadays can seem a kind of misplaced snooty or elitist purism.

And both performers said that the musicians love hearing applause between movements. It’s a form of reward for the hard work they do and the beauty they create or express.

True, some works seem to lend themselves to such interruptions better than others do. Applauding between the movements of a symphony, concerto or opera seems less intrusive than doing so between sections of a requiem or a song cycle.

But here is a good story on the famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City about applauding between movements. Read it and see what you think:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/why-dont-we-clap-between-movements-classical-concerts

What do you think of applause between movements or pieces?

Do you clap between movements?

If you don’t, will historical evidence and approval from the musicians themselves change your mind and behavior?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open a new season with an impressive program impressively played

July 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

Last Friday night, the six Willy Street Chamber Players (below) opened their third summer season at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

And once again, even though The Willys are relative newcomers, it is hard for The Ear to imagine a more perfect or more enjoyable concert.

The large and enthusiastic audience (below), which has grown considerably over the past two years, seemed to agree, judging by the standing ovations, loud applause and overheard comments.

So what made The Willys’ concert so great and so enjoyable?

Start with the basics

It was summery and informal. Shorts, T-shirts and sandals felt entirely appropriate.

It wasn’t expensive. A $15 ticket seems very affordable compared to what so many other local groups charge.

It wasn’t too long. They played just three pieces – two short and one long — that lasted under 80 minutes. That way you can enter the zone; concentrate hard and focus while you stay in the zone; and then leave the zone for good with time to do other things, including attend the post-performance reception with cookies, ice cream and coffee.

Spoken informal introductions to the pieces – each given by a different player – served as program notes, and they were kept short and to the point. (Below is cellist Mark Bridges humorously explaining the complicated love life of Brahms and how it affected his composing the string sextet.)

The playing itself was exemplary. (It featured the six core members plus guest violinist Suzanne Beia, below front left, of the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

The Ear detected no sour notes, no false starts or stops, no uncertain passages or interpretation. The well-rehearsed Willys played with precision as well as heart.

The program was typical Willy fare. It mixed short and long, old and new.

The old classics were two: Hugo Wolf’s charming “Italian Serenade” for string quartet (below) and with the String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, by Johannes Brahms, a long piece that received an energetic and thoroughly compelling reading.

But the star of the evening for The Ear came first: Jennifer Higdon‘s string quartet setting and contemporary take on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The riffs on the familiar tune by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (below) was new to The Ear and proved completely engaging, unmistakably modern-sounding yet accessible. (You can hear the Higdon work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Higdon string quartet (below) recalled an American tradition of using religious music for non-religious purposes. Think of how Charles Ives and Aaron Copland used old hymns and camp meeting songs, the most famous being Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

To be honest, a lot of new music just doesn’t speak to The Ear or reach him emotionally. It often makes him feel superfluous.

But The Willys have a knack for picking the right kind of new music that captures and holds The Ear’s attention, including the String Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass, the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain and “Entr’acte” for string quartet by Caroline Shaw.

It is a gift The Ear hopes they keep as they choose other contemporary composers and new music to perform with tried-and-true classics.

And if you want to hear more, you can go to The Willys’ website for details about the two remaining concerts this summer plus a FREE family-friendly Community Connect appearance at the east side Goodman Center from noon to 1 p.m. this Saturday. There they will play the works by Caroline Shaw and Daniel Bernard Roumain as well as “Tango for Four” by Astor Piazzolla and the Viola Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. (NOTE: An earlier mistake here and on the Willys’ website listed the String Sextet by Brahms rather than the Viola Quintet.)

The Willys complete the regular subscription season with performances at Immanuel Lutheran on two Fridays, July 21 (with music by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich) and July 28 (with music by Franz Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Both performances are at at 6 p.m.

For more details about the performers and the programs, here is a link:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

But if you do, you should know that Madison’s classical music documentarian and chronicler, Rich Samuels (below), is recording all the concerts to play this fall on his Thursday morning radio program “Anything Goes” on WORT-FM 89.9. Stay tuned for more information about air times.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and piano soloist Ilya Yakushev excel in a varied program. But audience members should do better at observing concert etiquette. Plus, retired UW-Madison bass-baritone Sam Jones dies at 87.

January 26, 2015
4 Comments

ALERT: Sad news has reached The Ear. Samuel M. Jones, a bass-baritone who was an exceptional performer and teacher at the UW-Madison School of Music for 37 years and who also served as the cantor at Temple Beth El and the Choral Director at Grace Episcopal Church, has died at 87. Here is a link to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://m.host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/jones-dr-samuel-m-jr/article_8a445e98-0cf3-5112-bd72-8840b58a0399.html?mobile_touch=true

Samuel M. Jones

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear couldn’t be in two places at once.

Being in the mood for some solo piano playing – because The Ear himself is an avid amateur pianist – he attended the solo recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, William Bolcom and Johannes Brahms performed by UW-Madison School of Music professor Christopher Taylor. But more about that will come in another post this week.

However, Larry Wells — a college classmate and good friend who is a longtime and very knowledgeable classical music follower and who has worked, lived and attended concerts in Rochester, San Francisco, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul — went to the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

He filed this review:

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

By Larry Wells

The program opened with a short introduction by Maestro Andrew Sewell, the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to the “English Suite” for string orchestra by the contemporary British composer Paul Lewis. (Sewell himself is a New Zealand native who also trained in England.)

Paul Lewis composer

Although the work was termed by Sewell as an obligatory form for British composers in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and the like, I found the rhapsodic opening and closing of the second section, “Meditation,” reminiscent of VW’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” But the remainder of the piece seemed trite and forgettable.

Following was the Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. In this case, a concert grand piano was used featuring soloist Ilya Yakushev, a Russian native who now lives in the U.S., who was making his second appearance with the WCO.

This familiar piece was played bouncily in the first movement, sweetly in the second, and really fast in the third. I enjoyed Yakushev’s playing, although from my seat the piano seemed slightly muffled and occasionally unheard over the orchestra.

ilya yakushev 3

The second half of the evening opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg, which Maestro Sewell claimed to be in the manner of Richard Strauss. If so, Strauss was much more expressive and engaging.

The evening ended with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn, again featuring Yakushev. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and found it immediately engaging and enjoyable throughout. (You can hear Ilya Yakushev perform the Mendelssohn piano concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether, it was a good evening of music.

But it was unfortunately marred early in the aforementioned “Meditation” movement when a woman two seats down from me decided to answer a text. The bright light from her cell phone was distracting, so I pointedly stared at her until her seat mate nudged her, and she put away the phone. The seat mate clearly felt that I was in the wrong and glared at me.

I noticed that there is no caution in the program about turning off cell phones, so I believe it would be a good idea for a brief announcement to be made at the beginning of the concert and at the end of the intermission for people to turn off their phones. That simple courtesy has still not become a part of all concertgoers’ routines.

smart phone

And what is with the Madison tradition of giving everything a standing ovation? (Below is a standing ovation at a concert on the Playhouse by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

There have been perhaps a dozen times in my long concert-going life when I have been so moved by the moment that I’ve leapt to my feet. I think of a standing ovation as recognition of something extraordinary — not as a routine gesture that cheapens to the point of meaninglessness.

For purposes of comparison, here is a link to the review of the same concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ilya Yakushev that veteran local music critic and retired UW-Madison medieval history professor John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=44422&sid=6243d3d1e78139b69884d31c5c1126e2


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