The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians cancels its performances in late April of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. Here are details about ticket donations and refunds

April 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following note from founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below top) and associate artistic director Kangwon Kim (below bottom) of the Madison Bach Musicians regarding the cancellation of the April performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

Dear Friends of Madison Bach Musicians,

We hope everyone is staying well and hanging in there during this global health crisis and massive shutdown. We’re all monitoring the news and looking for any indication that things might improve soon.

Unfortunately, the chances of improvement coming soon enough for public concerts scheduled even near the end of April are overwhelmingly remote.

Madison Bach Musicians (MBM) is very sorry to have to cancel the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi (below) on April 25 and 26. We were all greatly looking forward to it, and of course the piercing irony of having to cancel is that the joy this music brings is what we now, as a culture, need more than ever.

The global economic impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic is certainly catastrophic. And, in the music world we are feeling this directly. As a non-profit organization, cancelling a performance is one of the hardest decisions to make ― but the health and well-being of our audience, musicians and staff absolutely come first.

Madison Bach Musicians (below) has offered the Vespers musicians 40 percent of their fee ― we regret we are not a large enough organization to offer full payment.

Several of the players, however, in a show of great generosity, immediately requested that their portion be distributed among the other players. Considering the economic hardship that most freelance musicians will be facing in the coming months, every degree of financial support is deeply appreciated.

MBM is so very grateful to those of you who have purchased tickets to the Vespers. As MBM will feel the economic effects of the Vespers cancellation for a long time, we ask for your support and careful consideration as you decide what to do with your unused Vespers tickets.

If you have purchased tickets, please let us know by April 26, 2020 whether you would like to:

Make your Vespers tickets a tax-deductible donation to MBM. Thank you ― we appreciate it!

A. If you purchased tickets as part of a 2019-20 MBM season subscription or as individual tickets online, please email MBM manager Karen Rebholz at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com. She will email you your donation tax receipt.

B.  If you purchased tickets at one of our outlet locations (Orange Tree Imports or Willy Street Co-op East and West), please mail your tickets to MBM by U.S. mail, provide us with your email address, and we will email you your donation tax receipt.

Request a refund. We’re happy to provide your money back, and look forward to seeing you again in 2020-21 season.

A. If you purchased tickets as part of a 2019-20 MBM season subscription or as individual tickets online, please email MBM manager Karen Rebholz at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com. MBM will mail you your refund check.

B. If you purchased tickets at one of our outlet locations (Orange Tree Imports or Willy Street Co-op East and West), please mail your tickets to MBM by the U.S. mail, provide us with your street address, and MBM will mail you your refund check.

Our mailing address is: Madison Bach Musicians, 5729 Forsythia Place, Madison WI 53705. If you have questions, please email Karen Rebholz, MBM manager, at madisonbachmusicians.manager@gmail.com or call us at (608) 238-6092

Thank you for your understanding. We look forward to seeing you in the 2020-21 season

Very best wishes―and please stay safe.


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Classical music: Members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will give two concerts this week as part of the centennial season of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as one anniversary celebrating another anniversary.

This week, four members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City will be giving two concerts as part of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The Chamber Music Society is marking its 50th anniversary and is in town this week to help the WUT’s Concert Series celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Here is a link with more background about the special programming for the anniversary season: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/30/classical-music-personal-experience-artistic-excellence-and-historical-importance-drew-pianist-wu-han-and-cellist-david-finckel-into-planning-next-years-centennial-season-at-the-wisconsin-u/

The first concert is tomorrow — Thursday night, March 5 — at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union. The program features two piano quartets and a violin sonatina.

The Ear has seen the Society players before in Madison and has never heard them give anything short of a first-rate performance. 

The piano quartets are the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1, by Czech composer Josef Suk; the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms; and the Violin Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100, by Antonin Dvorak. (You can hear Chopin Competition winner and South Korean pianist Song-Jin Cho, play the Gypsy Rondo finale from the Brahms piano quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Personal ties link all three works. Brahms greatly admired Dvorak and helped launch his career. And Dvorak was both the teacher and father-in-law of Suk.

The performers (below, from left) are violinist Arnaud Sussmann, pianist Wu Han, violist Paul Neubauer; and cellist David Finckel.

The wife-and-husband team of Wu Han and David Finckel are the co-music directors of the Chamber Music Society and also the artistic advisors who helped the Wisconsin Union Theater put together its centennial season.

Says Han: Chamber music is a form of music that has the ability to provide comfort in difficult times, escape and inspiration for all. The Musical America’s Musician of the Year award winner adds that it’s those very things that drive her to continue to make music.

The performance is part of the new David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series. More information about the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center can be found on their website.

There will also be a pre-concert performance by students of the Suzuki method in Sonora Strings (below) beginning in Shannon Hall at 7 p.m.

For more background as well as how to purchase tickets ($10-$50), go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chamber-music-society-of-lincoln-center/

SATURDAY NIGHT

On Saturday night, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., pianist Wu Han (below top) will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its director and conductor Oriol Sans (below bottom).

The program is the Suite No. 1 from the chamber opera “Powder Her Face” by the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, by Beethoven; and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, by Brahms.

Tickets are $30 for the public, $25 for Union members and UW faculty and staff; and $10 for UW students. For more information about Wu Han and to purchase tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/wu-han-with-uw-symphony/

“Wu Han brings to the Wisconsin Union Theater not only a passion for music, but also authentic excitement about inspiring a love of music in others,” said Amanda Venske, Concert Series coordinator of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Performing Arts Committee.

The students of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will have the opportunity to learn from Han as they prepare for the Saturday performance.

Patrons can purchase tickets online or at the Memorial Union Box Office. The Wisconsin Union Theater team offers discounted tickets for University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, staff and students as well as Wisconsin Union members.

Other upcoming Concert Series performances are by violinist Gil Shaham with Akira Eguchi on March 28, and superstar soprano Renée Fleming on May 2. The Concert Series is the longest running classical music series in the Midwest.

 


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Classical music: On Wednesday at noon, Just Bach turns to C.P.E. Bach. At night, the Middleton Community Orchestra, with soloist Paran Amirinazari, plays the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Bruch plus works by Janacek and Sibelius.

February 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Wednesday, Feb. 19, features two noteworthy concerts, one by Just Bach at noon and the other by the Middleton Community Orchestra at 7:30 p.m.

Here are details:

JUST BACH

For this month’s FREE one-hour Just Bach concert (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) on this Wednesday at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, attention will turn from father to son.

The concert features music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (below), the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert opens with a movement from the Sonata in A Minor, Wq. 70/4, H. 85, performed by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

The program continues with a recently rediscovered Cantata, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande” (I Am Content with My Station), featuring bass-baritone Professor Paul Rowe, and the Just Bach period-instrument players led by Kangwon Kim.

Just Bach co-founder and soprano Sarah Brailey (below) will lead the chorale sing-along, a beloved audience-participation feature of these programs.

The program concludes with eight selections from the “Geistliche Oden und Lieder ‘Gellert Lieder’” (Sacred Odes and Songs ‘Gellert Songs’), performed by students of Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson), accompanied by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

This will also be the first concert with a mother and daughter performing, with violinist Leanne League in the Just Bach players, and soprano Cecilia League in the Paul Rowe studio.

Performers are: Sarah Brailey, soprano; Paul Rowe, baritone; Kangwon Kim, violin 1 (below); Leanne League, violin 2; Katrin Talbot, viola; Anton TenWolde, cello; Mark Brampton Smith, organ; Allyson Mills, Cecilia League, Carly Ochoa and Ella Anderson, sopranos; and Jack Innes, Jake Elfner, Nick Schinner and Chase Kozak, baritones.

The concert is free and open to the public, with a goodwill offering collected.

Other Just Bach concerts this spring, all Wednesdays at noon are on: March 25, April 15 and May 20.

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

At 7:30 p.m., the mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform its winter concert as part of its 10th anniversary season.

The concert takes place in the comfortable and acoustically pleasing  Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

The program, under conductor-composer Steve Kurr, includes the “Lachian Dances” by Leos Janacek; “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius; and the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with guest soloist Paran Amirinazari (below). (You can hear the finale of the violin concerto, played by Sarah Chang, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $15 for adults. Students are admitted free.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

There will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) with the orchestra players and audience members after the concert.

For more information about upcoming concerts, how to join the orchestra and how to support it, call (608) 212-8690 or go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir sings a holiday program of Bach, Vivaldi and other composers this coming Saturday night

December 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below top) will perform a holiday program this coming Saturday night, Dec. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium (below bottom, in a photo by Zane Williams), 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” paired with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Advent cantata, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Nations, BWV 61), performed with the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra.

(You can hear the familiar and energetic opening of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” — performed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing the Vivaldi and Bach works are additional selections, including a unique collection of O Antiphons — Latin prayers for the season of Advent.

For more information about the musical form, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Antiphons

Strikingly modern compositions by John Tavener (below top, in a photo by Steve Forrest), Vytautas Miskinis and Pavel Lukaszewski alternate with French Baroque settings by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (below bottom).

Seasonal carols round out the program in arrangements by three of the WCC’s favorite composers: Peter Blotch; the late American composer from Minneapolis Stephen Paulus (below); and Giles Swayne.

Advance tickets are available for online for $20 ($10 for students) from http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org/tickets or Brown Paper Tickets; or in person at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop, or from a member of the choir.

The ticket price at the door is $25.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms as well as a cappella works from various centuries and world premieres.

WCC artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Since 2002, the WCC has presented cantatas and oratorios with full orchestra, annually or biennially, including last season’s Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The players assembled for these performances, known collectively as Sinfonia Sacra, are members of the best regional orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and Sonata à Quattro.

For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, including how to join it as well as its future concerts, reviews, biographies, history and recordings, go to: https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org

 


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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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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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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