The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org

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Classical music: New York Polyphony opens the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival with a perfectly rendered composite portrait of Elizabethan sacred music. Plus, the winners of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition are announced

July 11, 2016
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ALERT: In case you haven’t yet heard, the winners (below) of the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition, held on Friday night in Mills Hall and accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians, have been announced.

Eric Jurenas (center), countertenor, won First Prize; Christina Kay (right), soprano, won Second Prize; and Nola Richardson (left), soprano, won Third Prize and Audience Favorite.

Handel Aria winners 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear left the concert hall thinking: Well, this will be an easy review to write.

Just give it an A-plus.

An easy A-plus.

On Saturday night, the acclaimed a cappella quartet New York Polyphony (below) opened the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) with a flawless performance.

new york polyphony

This year, the MEMF is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of poet and playwright William Shakespeare (below top) and the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below bottom), who oversaw the English Renaissance.

shakespeare BW

Queen Elizabeth I

And the program – performed before a large house of perhaps 450 or 500 enthusiastic listeners — was perfectly in keeping with the festival’s theme. It used sacred music rather than stage music or secular music, which will be featured later in this week of concerts, workshops and pre-concert lectures.

In fact, the program of New York Polyphony was based on two of the group’s best-selling CDs for BIS Records and AVIE Records: “Tudor City” and “Times Goes by Turns.” It was roughly divided into two masses, one on each half. (You can hear a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adding to the variety was that each Anglican or Roman Catholic-based mass was a composite, with various sections made up like movements written by different composers. Thrown in for good measure were two separate short pieces, the “Ave Maria Mater Dei” by William Cornysh and the “Ave verum corpus” of William Byrd.

The Mass on the first half featured music by Byrd, John Dunstable, Walter Lambe and Thomas Tallis. The second half featured works music by Tallis, John Pyamour, John Plummer and excerpts from the Worcester Fragments. The section were typical: the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

There was nothing fancy about this concert, which marked the Wisconsin debut of New York Polyphony and which spotlighted superbly quiet virtuosity. The four dark-suited men, who occasionally split up, just stood on stage and opened their mouths and sang flawlessly with unerring pitch and superb diction.

New York Polyphony MEMF 2016

A cappella or unaccompanied singing is hard work, but the four men made it seem easy. The countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass each showed confidence and talent plus the ability to project clarity while not overshadowing each other. This was first-class singing.

The beautiful polyphony of the lines was wondrous to behold even, if like The Ear, sacred music from this era – with its chant-like rather than melodic qualities – is not your favorite fare.

New York Polyphony provided a good harbinger of the treats that will come this week at the MEMF from groups like the Newberry Consort of Chicago with soprano Ellen Hargis (below top) and the Baltimore Consort (below bottom) as well as from the faculty and workshop participants. On Friday night is an appealing program that focuses on Shakespeare’s sonnets and music.

MEMF newberry consort

Baltimore Consort

And on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m., will be the All-Festival concert. That is always a must-hear great sampler of what you perhaps couldn’t get to earlier in the week. This year, it will feature the music as used in a typical Elizabethan day.

Here is a link to the MEMF website:

https://artsinstitute.wisc.edu/memf/

And here is a link the website of New York Polyphony if you want to hear more:

http://www.newyorkpolyphony.com


Classical music: Assistant conductor and chorus director Beverly Taylor explains her duties and discusses “Carmina Burana,” which the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus plus soloists perform this weekend. Plus, a FREE MSO hymn sing is Saturday at 11 a.m.

April 27, 2016
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) will offer a free hymn sing with Principal Organist Samuel Hutchison in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, in this Saturday, April 30, at 11 a.m. All ages are welcome to join in the singing with the Overture Concert Organ. No tickets or reservations are needed for the free Hymn Sing, which will last approximately 45 minutes.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will close out the current season this weekend with three performances of Carl Orff’s popular 1937 secular or profane oratorio “Carmina Burana” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.”

Also participating are Boychoir members from Madison Youth Choirs, Michael Ross, Artistic Director; soprano Jeni Houser, who was acclaimed for her role in the Madison Opera’s recent production of “The Tales of Hoffmann”; tenor Thomas Leighton; and baritone Keith Phares.

The concerts are in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonsymphony.org/carminaburana

Single tickets are $16 to $85 each, available on the MSO website; the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

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

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

Here is a link to program notes by Michael Allsen:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1516/8.AprMay16.html

Here is a link to translations of the Latin texts:

http://madisonsymphony.org/media/CarminaBuranaTextsTranslations.pdf

This season also marks the 20th anniversary of assistant MSO conductor Beverly Taylor, who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The ever-busy Taylor agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear about her duties and the program:

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

You are the very busy director of choral activities at the UW-Madison. But this is your 20th anniversary directing the Madison Symphony Chorus and serving as assistant conductor of the MSO. Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us what your MSO duties are?

They are three-fold.

First, I’m a “cover” conductor, meaning I’m supposed to be prepared to take over for John DeMain on short notice in case he’s suddenly sick or injured. This hasn’t happened in 20 years, but I HAVE covered some rehearsals by schedule when he’s been out of town or we fear a delayed plane arrival.

Normally the cover conductor conducts the concert if the delay or injury occurs at the beginning of the concert. If it happens in the second half, orchestras often just end the concert—like calling a baseball game after the five official innings.

My second job is preparing the chorus to sing for John De Main. Our rehearsals are like any other chorus rehearsal at first. We focus on notes, intonation, rhythmic accuracy, pronunciation and diction, beautiful phrasing and appropriate tone and balance.

Then closer to the performance, I check with Maestro De Main (below, in a photo by Prasad) on any special markings or tempos he may want. During my early years he often came to our last chorus rehearsal, but we’ve worked together for so many years now that he trusts me to put his choices into the chorus’ training.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

In the long term, my duties also include programming and conducting our non-orchestral concerts, auditioning new singers and ensuring that returning singers keep their abilities high.

My third job is challenging, interesting and fun. It’s to give Maestro Demain information from the audience’s point of view. That means balances between guest soloist and orchestra, balances and rhythmic acuity between sections of the orchestra, and any other notes or opinions that he might find useful.

His own hearing is acute, but anyone who conducts can tell you that the instruments right in front of you make so much noise, that you can’t always judge the relative balances of the orchestra as they project outwards.

Depending on how much time is available in the rehearsal, I make fast notes as the orchestra plays, and give him the notes after the Maestro has done most of his rehearsing. If we’re out of time, I give him the notes backstage and occasionally am asked to pass these notes on to the players involved – for example, a little more triangle, less cello and bass on measures 45-48, etc.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

How has the chorus changed over the past two decades?

I think the biggest way in which the chorus has changed is that it sight-reads better and is more acute with a cappella intonation. The main point in having good sight-readers is that it is a HUGE time saver in rehearsal and allows us to get deeper into musical decisions and development. Having said that, we do still take some people with fast ears and good voices who can prove they can keep up.

MSO Chorus CR Greg Anderson

What do you think explains the immense popularity of “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff (below)? How does it compare in popularity to other choral works, especially modern ones?

I think the work is easy to understand. The rhythms are clear, pulsing, repetitive and engaging, and the melodies are memorable and singable. In many ways, it has the appeal of musical comedies. The use of percussion instruments also is appealing and is familiar to people used to bands or popular music. (You can hear the mesmerizing opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

While perhaps not the most profound work, it is well crafted. And who hasn’t heard the opening tune in commercial after commercial?

The “modern” style today can’t be well defined because so many composers do so many things. I giggle a bit when audiences say they don’t like dissonance when five minutes in a movie theater with eyes closed will make the listener aware of FAR more dissonant music than in most modern concerts.

Many modern works can be understood at first hearing. Others yield more with a little study. It’s not really different from sports. You may have one person go to a baseball game for the weather, popcorn and home runs who will be disappointed if they miss those. Others will go noticing bad calls for strikes and balls, the stance of the batter, and will quote statistics from past games. They may have a richer experience because they know more, but it doesn’t mean people can’t go and get what they want out of it. Just go to concerts with open minds!

Carl Orff

Are there special things you would like to point out to the public about “Carmina Burana” in general and about this performance in particular?

There are three basic sections to “Carmina,” with an introduction and ending. The opening is based mainly on the subject of Fortune (the introduction) and songs that come out of the monk’s life—some of them were obviously sent to the monastery without a vocation!

The second section is for tenors and basses only—“At the Tavern,” and it’s operatic in its depiction of the fun of mocking life at the monastery, concluding in the great drinking song sung by the men in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan — excuses to toast everyone of every shape and size, and listing who drinks, which is everyone!

The third section, known as the court of love, is beautiful and emotional as the women who know the off-duty monks think about love and if they should yield or not. We finish off with the monumental “O Fortuna” — if Frank Sinatra was singing it would be “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”

There are techniques commonly and cheekily attributed to late Romantic works, especially Tchaikovsky: fast is good, loud is better, fast and loud is best. Orff follows this: his pacing builds steadily so that you are swept up in the excitement.

Carmina Burana Fortuna Wheel

Is there anything else you would like to say?

This isn’t the only thing on the program. Most people will adore the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi (below), full of color, majesty and the sound of trumpets all through the hall!

Ottorino Respighi profie

Plus, I give the pre-concert lecture this weekend. It’s free for all ticket-holders and is held in the hall an hour before the performance, lasting for half an hour. This means on Friday, it’s 6:30-7 p.m.; Saturday 7-7:30 p.m.; and Sunday 1:30-2 p.m.


Classical music: An amateur Baroque bassoon player wants to make music. Who can help make that happen?

December 13, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks of it as a kind of holiday gift request.

He received an inquiry from a really nice person who, as an amateur musician, is looking to connect with other people so that he can make music.

So he asked the sender if it is all right to post the request, and the sender agreed. Here it is -– with the wish that anyone who can help or who knows someone else who can help will answer and pass along a suggestion.

The Ear — who is a fierce advocate of amateur music-making — has already passed along some names. But he is sure that some readers will have even better suggestions.

Dear Ear,

You don’t know me, but I figured if anyone knows the answer to my question, you do.

Do you know how an amateur player of early music can best find opportunities to play around Madison?

The Baroque bassoon (A=415 pitch) and dulcians (A=440) are my main instruments.

Occasionally I play (on bassoon) duets with a cellist friend, but that’s about it. For years, I played dulcians and other Renaissance wind instruments with a group called the Milwaukee Renaissance Band, but it’s sadly defunct now.

ken hammel baroque bassoon

Surely there are players around. Some of them attend the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), which I’ve also done before. But where do they play the rest of the year?

I’ve looked at your interesting blog and at the MEMF Facebook page. So far, no success.

It would be great if there were some kind of online discussion group where players could find each other, but I haven’t found one. (NOTE: At bottom is a YouTube video of a sonata for bassoon, recorder and basso continuo by the Baroque Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.)

If you have any ideas, I’d sure be glad to hear them!

Yours,

Ken Hammel

2622 Van Hise Ave

Madison, WI 53705

(608) 233-1355

kehammel@gmail.com


Classical music: The UW-Madison Symphony Strings performs a forceful all-Beethoven program. Plus, the So Percussion ensemble performs Saturday night and the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra performs on Sunday afternoon.

November 6, 2015
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ALERTS: First, a reminder that the acclaimed and innovative So percussion ensemble performs this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Here is a link with information about the program, which includes the minimalism of Steve Reich, and the performers as well as tickets:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/so-percussion.html

The Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra will perform this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive. The orchestra, under the direction of Blake Walter, will perform the “Lucio Silla” Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra in D major by Michael Haydn, featuring horn soloist Dafydd Bevil; “Three Pieces in the Old Style” by Henryk Gorecki; and the Symphony No. 2 in A Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns. Admission is $5, or free with Edgewood College ID.

By Jacob Stockinger

Don’t be fooled by the name.

The UW Symphony Strings Orchestra (below) is a lot more than string players who also belong to the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra. And it is NOT to be confused with the All-University String Orchestra, which is made up of amateur musicians and non-music students and is conducted by Janet Jensen.

UW Symphony Strings copy

Conductor Kyle Knox (below) explains:

During one concert cycle per year, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs at Music Hall with UW Opera.  Given the space limitations of the opera pit, not all of our 75 Symphony members will play the opera.

So during this period the Symphony is split into two ensembles – Opera Orchestra and Symphony Strings.  Professor James Smith conducts the Opera Orchestra and I conduct the Symphony Strings.

Symphony Strings is a good venue for our players to perform some of the core classical chamber orchestra repertory.  Given the reduced size of the ensemble and the stylistic demands of music from the late Classical period, the Symphony Strings provides a wholly different performance challenge as compared to what they will experience in the large orchestra works performed in other concert cycles.

Playing Mozart and playing Mahler are very different experiences.  Both are difficult, but in different ways.  Last year, we did Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. This year, we’ll do two of the lesser-performed Beethoven Symphonies, Nos. 1 and 4.

As its name suggests, Symphony Strings has traditionally been a “strings only’ group.”  When necessary, recruitment for winds, brass and percussion starts with players from the Symphony Orchestra roster who are not involved with the opera. Inevitably players from other ensembles are recruited as needed to ensure that all parts are covered.  It all works out one way or another.

Kyle Knox 2

True to Knox’s words, it does work out.

A week ago Wednesday night in Mills Hall the Symphony Strings did indeed perform two symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 4. (You can hear Symphony No. 1 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Christian Thielemann in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

And sure enough, as well as strings, the orchestra included the required winds, brass and percussion.

The playing by all parties was very good. True, you could detect some unevenness. The cellos (below), for example, seemed especially polished and better in pitch or intonation than the violins, which were rough by comparison. Maybe that is because the cello section includes more accomplished undergraduates or more advanced graduate students or because the section is smaller in number or because the cello part is easier.

UW Symphony Strings cellos

Still, one has to make allowances. After all, these are students, not professionals. And it is still early in the season and school year. Most of all, Beethoven simply is not easy, not even early Beethoven.

And that was one of the highlights. The program included two lesser-known Beethoven symphonies and they went together extremely well.

Graduate student conductor Knox (below, center right), who is quite busy these days with many engagements — including the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Opera — drew sharp attacks and clean quick releases, forceful accents, sudden and dramatic dynamic shifts in tempi and volume. Those are all hallmarks of exceptional Beethoven playing.

Kyle Knox conducting UW Symphony Strings

It was enough to make The Ear hope that the group does another program with Beethoven’s two other less well-known symphonies: Nos. 2 and 8. Maybe next semester, or maybe next year.

Then again, The Ear loves the same early Beethoven (below), influenced by the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, that many other listeners skip over: the early symphonies, the early piano sonatas, the early piano trio, the early violin sonatas, the early cello sonata and the early string quartets.

young beethoven etching in 1804

And often a soloist pulls up the quality, so perhaps a faculty soloist would be a good addition.

But soloist or not, it is well worth hearing.

So The Ear highly encourages orchestral fans to go. The next performance is on Thursday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. No program is listed yet. But write the concert into your datebooks. You’ll be happy you did.


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