The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The eclectic fusion group Mr. Chair plays music by Stravinsky, Satie and others on Monday night in Spring Green

August 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Rural Musicians Forum:

Mr. Chair looks like a jazz quartet, sounds sometimes like a rock band, but in actuality is a contemporary classical music group in the guise of a modern band.

Classically trained musicians who are well versed in jazz, the players in Mr. Chair create a new sound using both acoustic and electric instruments.(You can hear Mr. Chair perform the original composition “Freed” in the the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Rural Musicians Forum audience will have the chance to enjoy the soundscapes of this fascinating eclectic fusion group on this coming Monday night, Aug. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below) in Spring Green.

Members of Mr. Chair (below) are Professor Mark Hetzler, trombone and electronics; Jason Kutz, piano and keyboards; Ben Ferris, acoustic and electric bass; and Mike Koszewski, drums and percussion. All have close ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where they also perform as an ensemble.

Mr. Chair’s compositions are long-form journeys, telling stories through sound by using and exploring the three pillars of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Think cinematic, orchestral, surreal, romantic, emotional and gripping, and always equal parts dissonant and consonant. Their influences are far-reaching from classical, blues and rock to soul, funk, jazz and beyond.

For this concert, Mr. Chair will perform re-imagined excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet masterpiece Pulcinella as well as music by Erik Satie and selections from their debut album, NEBULEBULA, which will be released on Thursday, Sept. 5, on vinyl, CD and digital streaming platforms.

The genre-bending quartet will perform in the beautiful Hillside Theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Taliesin compound. It is located at 6604 State Highway 23, about five miles south of Spring Green.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.


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Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and 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 early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and solo trumpeter Jessica Jensen score big with an unusual program

March 2, 2019
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The concert by the largely amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) on Wednesday night presented a novel program at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

In the relatively brief first part, it presented two unusual items.

The first was by Nebojsa “Neb” Macura (b. 1982, below right with conductor Steve Kurr), a local musician of Serbian background, who has been particularly identified with Russian folk music and ensembles. But he also plays viola in the MCO, which gave him this opportunity in the spotlight.

His piece, Polar Night, is quite brief, but in this version for full orchestra (with piano), it is grounded with secure melodic flow, and it unfolds into a tonal picture full of beautiful colors. My only reservation was that I wanted more of it — either more music in this piece or other sections around it.

Macura is obviously talented, and he has a confident sense of orchestral writing. I really look forward to hearing more of him. Indeed, the MCO might well serve as exactly the laboratory in which he can develop new creations.

The second item was only a bit longer, a Trumpet Concerto by Russian composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (b. 1929, below). Her long career has involved her in jazz, and also in extensive scoring for films. But she has a feeling for Russian traditional song, and that could be heard in this concerto.

It is cast in only a single movement, but it proceeds episodically.  There is certainly much flashy writing for the solo instrument, and local trumpeter Jessica Jensen (below) brought off her role dashingly.

The longer second part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish,” by Robert Schumann. This splendid work was inspired by observation of life along the Rhine River.

It is unusual in being written in five movements, not the conventional four. (Oddly, their individual markings were not printed in the program, but conductor Steve Kurr (below) gave a clever spoken introduction that outlined the score for the audience.)

This is a very extroverted work, calling for a lot of orchestral sonority. I suspect that a little more rehearsal time would have helped the avoidance of some blemishes: rapid passages, especially in the first movement, were roughly articulated, and there were some tiny gaffes all along.

But the players were devoted in responding to maestro Kurr’s rather propulsive tempos. This score gives a lot to do particularly to the horn section, which played with ardent splendor.

As always, then, the MCO earned further laurels for presenting this very adventurous program.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players will play music by Russian, British, Canadian and American composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

March 1, 2019
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ALERT: If you attend the concert by the Cuarteto Casals tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, you night want to read local writer and amateur cellist Paul Baker’s interview with the Chicago-born violist who analyzes the interpretation of each piece on the program. Here is a link to Baker’s blog “Only Strings” where you can find the interview: https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/author/pbaker/  

For more information about the group and the concert, go to yesterday’s post:  https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/classical-music-this-friday-night-the-wisconsin-union-theater-presents-a-world-class-spanish-string-quartet-and-will-also-announce-the-special-programs-for-its-centennial-anniversary-next-season/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their season theme of Vignettes with compositions that depict concepts and stories.

The program includes dances from Panama, a string quartet from Russia and interpretation of the natural world woven into a composition by an American composer.

Performances will take place Saturday night, March 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 3, at 2 p.m. Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side not far from West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information.

Five Novelettes for string quartet by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (below) showcase the composer’s imagination and romantic writing. From the opening elegance in the Spanish style to the spirited Hungarian character in the finale, each of the five contrasting movements is graceful and captivating.

Red Hills Black Birds was composed by American composer Libby Larsen (below) for clarinet, viola and piano after she viewed contrasting paintings of New Mexico by Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of O’Keeffe’s works embody a sense of perspective, color and horizon. Larsen’s music uses her impressions of O’Keeffe’s art as her compositional focus. She reimagines six paintings of the southwest and shapes her composition to concepts of breadth and timelessness.

Dash for flute, clarinet and piano by American composer Jennifer Higdon (below) is a riotous musical chase. The composer chose these three instruments specifically for their capability of velocity. The unrelenting pulse creates a breath-taking technical sprint for the players.

O Albion by British composer Thomas Adès (below) is excerpted from his string quartet Arcadiana. The music has an ethereal quality and mesmerizes with its slow beauty and simplicity. (You can hear “O Albion” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon is an upbeat piece written by Canadian composer, bassoonist and jazz pianist Bill Douglas. His writing brings together both classical and jazz influences.

The concert concludes with Danzas de Panama by William Grant Still (below) for string quintet and flute. A noted 20th century African-American composer, Still based this piece on Panamanian folk tunes collected in the 1920s. He used the lushness of the songs and compelling rhythms with great success. He was a talented orchestrator and it is hard to resist the panache and charm of the four movements: Taborita, Mejorana, Punto and Cumbia y Conga.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szyczs, bassoon; and Maggie Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guest artists Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Ariel Garcia, viola; Brad Townsend, bass; and Satoko Hayami, piano.

This is the fourth of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-2019 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on May 18 and 19.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years. They have also played in other local groups, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, with guest singer Emily Birsan, closes its 27th annual summer chamber music season on the highest note

June 28, 2018
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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. Performance photos are by Dick Ainsworth for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

By John W. Barker

Last Saturday night, I was able to attend the second program on the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s third and final weekend this season.

The opening work was American Haiku, a duo for viola and cello, by the American Paul Wiancko. Obviously inspired by Japanese musical traditions, it is a longish piece, notably lacking in the brevity of its poetic model. It was diligently played by two of the budding young musicians the society has been fostering, violist Jeremy Kienbaum (below left) and cellist Trace Johnson (below right).

Further on in the first half came the Flute Concerto in D minor (H. 484:1), by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dated to 1747, three years before papa Johann Sebastian died. It presents the composer as a transitional figure, anchored in the Late Baroque but tugging toward the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity of feeling or expression) of the Early Classical period.

As the reduced orchestra, we had local violinists Leanne Kelso League and Suzanne Beia, with Kienbaum and Johnson, and, on the harpsichord continuo there was the deferential pianist Satoko Hayami.

The flute soloist (below) was, of course, BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt, who played her role with obvious relish but with splendid precision, and (notably in the lively finale) real panache. The other players joined in with fine spirit.

For me, one of the two prime features of this program, however, was the participation of soprano Emily Birsan (below), a past product of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and now an international star. Every time she returns to Madison is welcome, and provides us with a progress report on herself and her career. Her voice has continued to fill out with strength and beauty.

Accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), she sang in the first half of the program a set of four songs, Op. 27 (once again, the number of the BDDS’s anniversary) by Richard Strauss. This set includes some particular gems by the composer, ending with the sublime Morgen! (In the Morning!). Birsan magically made each song a contrasting vignette of character and mood.

Birsan was back after the intermission, again with Sykes.

They performed Samuel Barber’s set of 10 Hermit Songs, using marginal manuscript scribblings by Medieval monks as texts. With the strong support of Sykes, Birsan was superlative in conveying the simple irony and naivety of these affectionately lyrical miniatures. This performance leaves a surely enduring memory.

The other high point, for me, was the Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 for piano and strings by Robert Schumann. This is a fundamental work in the chamber music literature, a piece to wonder at.

I had forgotten how much rich prominence is given to the viola, within ensemble context, in the greatly varied second movement. Kienbaum projected it with eloquent strength, and the other players heard in the C.P.E. Bach work were utterly involved. (You can hear and see the prominent role of the viola in the opening movement of the quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is the kind of first-class chamber playing that we have come to expect from the BDDS, and why we cherish it so.


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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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 amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


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