The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings the debut of a new conducting professor with the UW Symphony Orchestra plus a major voice recital, a string quintet and two master classes.

October 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week for classical music in Madison, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Certainly the standout event is the debut of Chad Hutchinson (below). He is the new conducting teacher and succeeds James Smith.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra will take place on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The intriguing program features the Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner (you can hear George Solti perform it with the Vienna Philharmonic the YouTube video at the bottom); the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy; the “Mothership,” with electronics, by the American composer Mason Bates; and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that was recently voted the best symphony ever written by more than a hundred conductors.

Here is a link to more about Hutchinson’s impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/chad-hutchinson/

And here is a schedule of other events at the UW:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall conductor Scott Teeple leads the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) in its FREE season opener featuring music by Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland, Roger Zare and Jennifer Higdon. Also featured is guest oboist, faculty member Aaron Hill (below bottom).

Here is a link to program notes:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble/

Also at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Morphy Recital Hall, the internationally renowned guest violist Nobuko Imai (below), from Japan, will give a free public master class in strings and chamber music.

THURSDAY

At noon in Mills Hall, guest violist Nobuko Imai (see above) will perform a FREE one-hour lunchtime concert with the Pro Arte Quartet, which has San Francisco cellist guest Jean-Michel Fonteneau substituting for the quartet’s usual cellist, Parry Karp, who is sidelined temporarily with a finger injury.

The ensemble will perform just one work: a driving and glorious masterpiece, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms.

At 1 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Demondrae Thurman (below), a UW alumnus who is distinguished for playing the euphonium, will give a free public master class in brass.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/master-class-demondrae-thurman-euphonium/

NOTE: The 3:30 master class for singers by Melanie Helton has been CANCELLED. The UW hopes to reschedule it for late fall or spring.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a  photo by Michael R. Anderson) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below middle) will give a FREE concert of three songs cycles by Robert Schumann (the famed “Liederkreis); Maurice Ravel; and UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel (below bottom).

For the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-paul-rowe-voice-martha-fischer-piano-2/

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform under its new conductor Chad Hutchinson. See above.

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. the afternoon concerts by Lyle Anderson at the UW Carillon (below) on Observatory Drive will resume.

Here is a link with a schedule and more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/carillon-concert/2017-10-08/


Classical music: What composers and what pieces give you shelter and sanctuary during troubled times?

October 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

A week ago, The Ear went to the inspired all-Mozart program given by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet with guest cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below center) and guest clarinetist Alicia Lee (below right), who was making her debut as a new UW faculty member.

He expected a fine performance and he was not disappointed. Indeed, he shares the same very positive reactions that critic John W. Barker expressed in his review for this blog. Here is a link to that review:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/09/30/classical-music-uws-pro-arte-quartet-and-new-uw-clarinet-professor-alicia-lee-perform-a-sublime-all-mozart-program/

But something else happened too.

The sublime music of Mozart (below) – especially the Larghetto slow second movement of the late Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, but also the other movements and the String Quartet in G Major, K. 387 -– took The Ear into another world, into a parenthesis in time.

(You can hear a live performance in Japan by Yo-Yo Ma and others in the Larghetto movement, plus the rest of the Clarinet Quintet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For a brief time – perhaps a total of about 80 or 90 minutes – The Ear was totally transported. He temporarily blocked out the political strife in Washington, D.C. and the Trump White House; the government turmoil here in Madison and around the world; and  the terrible, deadly natural disasters of floods, hurricanes and wildfires in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

He just let the transcendent music and the performances wash over him, refreshing him with their beauty before he reemerged onto the street and into the painful reality of current events after the concert ended.

So The Ear offers a deeply felt thank you to the performers for planning and playing such a timely and therapeutic program. He needed that more than he knew. And he hopes more such concerts are in store. The times demand such balm, not as escapism but as a reminder of great good things that endure.

So here is The Ear’s question: What other composers and what other pieces or works do you find offer the same kind of sanctuary or shelter?

Leave a COMMENT with a link to a performance on YouTube if possible.


Classical music: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet and new UW clarinet professor Alicia Lee perform a sublime all-Mozart program

September 30, 2017
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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 WORTFM 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 University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet has begun its 2017-18 season amid uncertainties.

The most notable one is the current indisposition of cellist Parry Karp, whose injury to two fingers of his left hand has prevented him from playing for the immediate future.

Quartet members (below in a photo by Rick Langer) are, from left, David Perry and Suzanne Beia, first and second violins; Sally Chisholm, viola: and Parry Karp, cello.

But the group has pressed on bravely, offering an all-Mozart concert last Sunday night in Mills Hall.

The first of two works was the buoyant but challenging String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Replacing Karp was a guest cellist, Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below right and bottom), who is familiar to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s summer concerts.

Fonteneau played elegantly and fitted into the ensemble quite smoothly. And the other three players performed with their accustomed precision and style.

But just one personnel change makes a difference. Clearly missing was the robust tone and firm foundation that Karp has imparted to the ensemble’s playing for so long.

If the G major Quartet is a Mozartean model of its kind, we move to Olympian heights with the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 — a chamber work (below) with only the tiniest number of peers in this scoring.

Joining the quartet this time was a new UW-Madison faculty member, clarinetist Alicia Lee (below).

Petite but totally confident, Lee brought to the string ensemble not the edgy aggressiveness so often heard from clarinetists but rather a glowing mellowness that balanced neatly with the string sounds.

The loveliest moments seemed to me to be the slower passages, and the exquisite slow movement was truly ethereal. (You can hear the Larghetto slow movement, played by clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Preceding the concert was an announcement by Linda Graebner of the consolidation of the Pro Arte Quartet Forward Fund, which is seeking to raise an major endowment for the quartet.

Bolstered by that effort, then, the PAQ is some five years into its second century, determined from many sides to cope with its uncertainties.

NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet’s next performance is this coming Thursday: a FREE performance at NOON in Mills Hall of the String Quintet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Jean-Michel Fonteneau will again be the cellist and the guest artist is the internationally renowned violist Nobuko Imai (below). Imai will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class in strings and chamber music on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.


Classical music: Farley’s underappreciated Salon Piano Series shines again with duo-pianists Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro

September 29, 2017
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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

Roberto Plano appeared last season in a four-piano concert in the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. This year, to open the 2017-18 season in the same series on last Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based pianist brought along his pianist wife, Paola Del Negro, for a duo program of utter fascination. (They are below.)

The first half of the program was devoted to music for piano-four hands, the duo alternating between primo and secondo parts. Robert Schumann’s six “Pictures From the East,” Op. 66, are examples of the composer’s important duo output.

Burgmein was the pen name of the covert composer better known as the influential music promoter and publisher Giulio Ricordi (below). His set of six duet pieces evoking characters from the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte tradition followed.

Then came two of the Hungarian Dances (No. 2 and 5) by Johannes Brahms in their original piano-duo form. (You can hear them play Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ending the program’s first half was one of its biggest hits. After composing the great orchestral cycle of six patriotic scenes called “My Country,” Bedrich Smetana (below) made four-hand piano arrangements of each. Plano and Del Negro played that for the popular “Moldau.” This arrangement managed to capture a good deal of the orchestral original’s coloristic and dramatic effects, and was played with particular power.

The entire second half was devoted exclusively to a major work by Brahms, his Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. This work was created first as a string quintet, then later discarded. But the two-piano version (below) was superseded by Brahms’ transformation of its material into a Quintet for Piano and Strings (reckoned as plain Op. 34).

The Quintet — which, by the way will be performed by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet in the Salon Series next March — is, of course, one of the composer’s masterpieces. But the Two-Piano Sonata survives on its own merits. The parallel material is presented cogently, all of it redistributed in consistently keyboard terms, as against the mixed media of the Quintet.

The duo played it with the necessary Brahmsian burliness and power, and on Farley’s wonderful vintage pianos it sounded simply magnificent.

As an encore, the duo played a two-piano arrangement of an energetic tango piece by Astor Piazzolla, but then followed with another, in this case, an eight-hand piano trifle in which the Plano-Del Negro duo were joined as parents by their two young daughters (below). The audience could hardly resist that!

Plano and Del Negro are great discoveries. And once again, the Salon Piano Series has shown itself as one of the exciting, if too-little-known of Madison’s musical treasures.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org


Classical music: Starting this Sunday night, the next month is busy for the UW-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet with FREE concerts of music by Mozart, Brahms and Schubert

September 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The opening concert of the new season of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) is this coming Sunday night, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The Pro Arte Quartet will give an all-Mozart program, featuring Alicia Lee (below), the new clarinet professor at the UW-Madison. The works to be performed are the G Major “Haydn” String Quartet, K. 387, called the “Spring” Quartet, and the famed late Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581. (You can hear the sublime slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to biographies of new faculty members at the UW-Madison School of Music, including that of Lee:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/06/20/new-faculty-hires-at-the-school-of-music/

In early October, the internationally celebrated violist Nobuko Imai (below) returns to the UW-Madison campus, on her way from Europe to a concert in Minneapolis.

Her master class on viola and chamber music will be on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall. It is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

The following day, Thursday, Oct. 5, at NOON in Mills Hall, Imai  will perform a FREE public concert with members of the Pro Arte Quartet and guest cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below).

The program is a single work, a masterpiece: the Brahms G Major Viola Quintet, Op. 111. It is legendary for the first viola part, according to a member of the quartet, and Imai would herself be legendary in this role.

Cellist Fonteneau is a member of the San Francisco Trio, and is familiar to Madison audiences through his many acclaimed appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

Adds Pro Arte violist Sally Chisholm: “This particular concert is another gesture to all the long-time supporters of the Pro Arte and the Madison community who remain part of our legacy.”

The Pro Arte’s second concert, also FREE and open to the public, is Saturday night, Oct. 28, in Mills Hall. It is will be all Schubert – the flute and piano theme and variations, and the Schubert Octet, featuring members of both the Wingra Wind Quintet and the Pro Arte Quartet.

Says Chisholm: “The Schubert Octet has been much discussed up and down the fourth floor of the School of Music for several years, and suddenly, we said “Let’s do it!”

“We checked calendars, and the Wingra was free to join us on Oct. 28. Whether this is a first performance of the Schubert, or one of many, the feeling is always that we never have the chance to perform it often enough. We hope it brings us all together with hope and joy.”

The Pro Arte Quartet’s longtime cellist Parry Karp continues to teach and coach chamber musicians, but he has been sidelined by a finger injury and will not yet be back to perform these concerts. He is scheduled to return to performing in November, according to Chisholm.


Classical music: Get the new UW-Madison brochure for the School of Music concerts, faculty and students. It’s a MUST-HAVE and a MUST-READ, and it is FREE to anyone

September 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Although the UW-Madison officially opened yesterday, today is the first day of instruction. And this weekend will see the beginning of the new concert season at the Mead Witter School of Music.

On Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, faculty soprano Mimmi Fulmer and alumnus pianist Thomas Kasdorf will kick off the season with a FREE concert of music and songs celebrating the 100th anniversary of the independence of Finland.

But that’s just the beginning to an event-filled school year that includes mostly free solo recitals, chamber music, orchestral music, opera, choral music and more.

And this year, there is a new guide to the concert season and the School of Music itself.

The short and usual glossy brochure of listings has given way to a booklet guide. It is 8-1/2 by 11 inches big and has 24 well-filled pages. It is printed on regular paper and has much more information about the events and the people who make them happen. It takes you behind the scenes as well as in the hall and on the stage.

It is less showy, to be sure, but so much more readable and informative. And it feels great in your hands.

On the right hand margin, you’ll find concerts with performers and programs. To the left and in the center, you will find news, biographies and other information about musicians, donors and an update about the new concert hall building.

The new guide, which you can get for FREE, is the brainchild of Kathy Esposito (below), the music school‘s publicist and concert manager.

Here is what Esposito has to say:

“Our School of Music website, which debuted in 2014, required resources that previously had been devoted to multiple print publications.

“So we dropped back to only one, a printed events calendar.

“I’m happy to say that for the 2017-18 academic year, we finally found time to enlarge the printed concert calendar into a true newsletter as well.

“We certainly have enough news to share. Much of what’s in there had not been, or still is not, placed on the website at http://www.music.wisc.edu.

“My personal favorites are the stories from students, both undergrad and grad. As a mom of two young musicians, I can, to some degree, understand both the challenges and the thrills of their careers. Learning about their lives is the best part of my job. Occasionally I can help them, too.

“A couple of other things to give credit where credit is due.

“My assistant, Brianna Ware, who is a graduate student in piano, caught and corrected many errors.

“The brochure was designed by Bob Marshall of Marshall Design in Middleton. He did a masterful job. Bravo!

“Printing was coordinated by the fabulous Sue Lind at DoIT (Division of Information Technology) Printing and Publishing, who helped me to choose a new paper stock, a lightweight matte.

“Lastly, upon request from our older readers, we increased the font size slightly.

“We mailed the brochure to all alumni, national and international. That also was new. And our feedback has been quite positive.

“I’m happy to send readers a FREE copy of this fall’s brochure – with the somewhat humdrum title “Concerts, News and Events” – to those who email their postal addresses to me. I’ll place you on the list for next year, too. Send your name and postal address to kesposito@wisc.edu

About twice a month, we also publish an e-newsletter in the form of a blog, which I also paste into an email for those on a Wisclist, who don’t get the blog. It is the same information, but I think the blog is prettier.

That’s available via this link: https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/


Classical music: The Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Piano announces its new season of four concerts

August 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The reliably virtuosic and musically enjoyable Salon Piano Series has just announced its 2017-18 season.

A piano duo, piano soloists and the Pro Arte Quartet provide traditional salon concert experiences with informal seating and restored pianos.

The 2017-18 Salon Piano Series season again includes piano soloists and ensembles typical of 19th-century European salon concerts, with well-known concert artists from Italy, Russia, Israel and Ireland.

According to a press release, the season’s offerings are:

Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro Duo (below) on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Italian husband and wife piano duo Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro kick off the season with Schumann’s “Pictures from the East” (Bilder aus Osten, Op. 66), Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1-5, “The Moldau” by Smetana, and Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, the earlier version of his great Piano Quintet. The duo will perform on one piano for the first half of the program and on two for the second half. (You can hear them perform Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ilya Yakushev (below) on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 4 p.m.

Returning by popular demand, Ilya Yakushev will perform an exhilarating program of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Tchaikovsky’s “Sentimental Waltz,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in his November concert.

Alon Goldstein (below top) and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below bottom in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, March 10, 2018 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2018 at 4 p.m.

To accommodate the crowds, Salon Piano Series booked two performances for Alon Goldstein and the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet in March. Goldstein will perform selected Scarlatti sonatas solo, then the Pro Arte Quartet and bassist David Scholl will join him for Mozart Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in a reduced arrangement, and the Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

John O’Conor (below) on Saturday, May 12, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

To cap off the season in May, the great Irish pianist John O’Conor will perform Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in his first Salon Piano Series appearance.

Visit salonpianoseries.org for complete concert programs, and artist information.

All concerts are at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west wide near West Towne Mall. All concert includes a post-concert artist reception.

Tickets are $50 at the door or $45 in advance; season tickets are $150.

You can purchase tickets online at brownpapertickets.com or in-person at Farley’s House of Pianos. Service fees may apply.

About the Salon Piano Series

Now in its fifth season, Salon Piano Series was founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and offers audiences the chance to hear artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos.


Classical music: The annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert for this year has been CANCELLED

July 30, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s posting has sad news to report.

The Ear has learned that the annual Karp Family Labor Day concert for this year has been CANCELLED.

It would have been the 39th annual FREE community gift from the talented Karp family (below) – Madison’s First Family of Music — to the community.

Over the years the well attended family concert, which was usually performed on Labor Day night or the Monday night before classes began at the UW-Madison, had become the unofficial start of the new concert season, both at the UW-Madison and in the larger community.

Performers included grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren as well as guest artists.

For 38 years, many new works were premiered and no work was ever repeated.

That is an impressive record.

The immediate reason for the cancellation is as follows: After the death of pianist Howard Karp in 2014, eldest son Parry Karp (below) became the patriarch and guiding spirit, and the show went on. Parry Karp is a cello professor at the UW-Madison and longtime member of the Pro Arte String Quartet.

But several months ago Parry Karp sustained a serious injury to the fourth finger on his left hand, which is the hand that finds the notes. (You can hear Parry Karp playing a cello duet five years ago with his daughter Ariana Karp in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That same injury caused him to cancel performances this summer with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and the upcoming Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Perhaps the Labor Day tradition will be revived next year. You can read about past concerts by using the search engine on this blog.

But perhaps not, although everyone certainly wishes Parry Karp a full and speedy recovery.

The Ear gives bravos and a big thank you to all the Karps, who gave us so much wonderful music over so many years.

Others can also leave words of gratitude and encouragement in the COMMENT section.


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

July 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

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

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

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

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

Start with the basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

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


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