The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Spanish music and a new concerto by Chris Brubeck

November 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present the third concert of its 92nd season.

“Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works: one written for Isbin by American composer Chris Brubeck; and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. (Isbin will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the Humanities Building on North Park Street.)

In addition the MSO will perform two 20th-century ballet suites — The Three-Cornered Hat by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla and Billy the Kid by American composer Aaron Copland.

The concerts (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. Details are below.

Invoking a sense of the American heartland, Billy the Kid was written by Copland (below) as a ballet following the life of the infamous outlaw. This piece is most well-known for the memorable “cowboy” tunes and American folk songs that paint a vivid picture of the Wild West.

The virtuosity and versatility of multiple Grammy Award-winner Sharon Isbin is on display in this program of contrasts: the jazz idioms of the American composer Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” written for Sharon Isbin, alongside the lush romanticism of the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” (You can hear Sharon Isbin play the beautiful slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The piece by Brubeck (below) contains strong hints of the jazz influence of his father, noted pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Rodrigo’s composition attempts to transport the listener to another place and time through the evocation of the sounds of nature.

Isbin’s performances of Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” have received wide acclaim: “The concerto takes off with Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity with infectious themes. The slow middle is a tender jazz-based tribute to Dave Brubeck, and Isbin played with heartfelt warmth and tenderness. The finale was an infectious rhythmically driven journey through myriad styles. It was as intriguing as it was moving … Isbin is much more than a virtuoso; she is an artist of depth.”

The Three-Cornered Hat by De Falla (below) is based on a story written by Pedro de Alarcón about a Corregidor (magistrate) who tries, without success, to seduce the pretty wife of the local miller.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor at UW-Whitewater, MSO trombonist and writer of MSO’s program notes, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read Allsen’s Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/3.Nov17.html.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

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

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

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique, and versatility, Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time.” Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, her debut concert with the MSO comes after over 170 solo performances with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Orchestre National de France, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary presented by American Public Television. Seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations throughout the US, it is also available on DVD/Blu-ray and won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” paints the portrait of a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The following is a dedicated website where you can view the trailer, read rave reviews, and see detailed broadcast dates: www.SharonIsbinTroubadour.com

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC-15, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by Scott and Janet Cabot, John DeLamater and Janet Hyde, Steven Weber, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Classical music: On Saturday night, the Festival Choir of Madison will sing a program of modern Norwegian and Baltic music about the Northern Lights. Plus on Friday there is a FREE noontime concert of music by Mozart and Ernesto Nazareth and a FREE PUBLIC master class by pianist Richard Goode

November 2, 2017
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ALERT I: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ernesto Nazareth. (Sorry, no specific works for either composer were named.) The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

The performers in Mozart are: Joanne Schulz and Sarah Gillespie, horns; Elspeth Stalter-Close, violin; Melanie De Jesus and Shannon Farley, violas; Emma Downing, cello. The performers in Nazareth are: Chris Allen, guitar; Shannon Farley, viola; and Iva Ugrcic, flute.

ALERT II: On Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, pianist Richard Goode will give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy. For more about Goode’s recital on Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/classical-music-master-pianist-richard-goode-performs-music-by-bach-beethoven-chopin-and-alban-berg-in-a-must-hear-recital-this-saturday-night-at-the-wisconsin-union-theater/

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, at 7:30 p.m., at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Festival Choir of Madison (below top) will perform under director and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below bottom).

The program features contemporary Norwegian and Baltic choral music around the theme of the “Northern Lights” or Aurora Borealis (below, as seen in northern Norway).

For more information, go to: https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2017/11/northernlights

Admission is $20 for the public; $15 for seniors; and $10 for students. For ticket information, go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3054565?ref=349591

The voices will be supported by leading Madison-based musicians in a journey through the mystical soundscapes of the North with music by Ola Gjeilo (below top), Peteris Vasks, Trond Kverno, Eriks Esenvalds (below middle), and retired UW-Madison horn professor and composer Douglas Hill (below bottom).

The specific program includes: “Northern Lights” by Ola Gjeilo; “Dark Night of the Soul” by Ola Gjeilo; “Mate Saule” by Peteris Vasks; “Ave Maris Stella” by Trond Kverno; “Northern Lights” by Eriks Esenvalds (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Homage to Thoreau” by Douglas Hill.


Classical music: The UW Pro Arte Quartet and Wingra Wind Quintet prove exceptional partners in a joint all-Schubert concert

October 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 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, in Mills Hall on the campus, two ensembles from the Mead Witter School of Music at the UW-Madison joined forces in an all-Schubert program.

The two groups were the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) and the Wingra Wind Quintet (no group photo is available).

The music of Schubert (below) will, of course, guarantee a delightful evening, and that was certainly the case this time.

As a prologue, there was the set of variations for flute and piano, D. 802, on Schubert’s own song, Trockne Blumen from his Die schöne Müllerin song cycle. This was played with real flair by Timothy Hagen  with pianist Daniel Fung (both are below). Hagen preceded the performance by explaining the relationship of the variations to the whole cycle. (You can hear the original song sung by the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That choice of an opener had its point because the variations were composed just weeks before the major work on the program, Schubert’s Octet in F, D. 803.

There is much individuality in this Octet, scored for a combination of strings and winds. It is true that Schubert’s elder contemporary, Louis Spohr, had written such an octet, if with slightly different scoring, in 1817, while Schubert’s was composed in 1824. Still, Schubert’s hour-long score is more expansive, a work remarkable at its time and hardly equaled since.

In this broad, symphonically scaled six-movement work, Schubert just poured out one feast of melodic invention after another. One does not often have a chance to hear this work in concert, but this performance was a particularly memorable one.

The performers (below) were clarinetist Alicia Lee, bassoonist Mark Vallon, and hornist Joanna Schulz, along with bassist David Scholl, plus the usual four members of the Pro Arte Quartet.

Ah, but that last element gave the evening special meaning, for it involved the return to performing by cellist Parry Karp (below). A recent accident had damaged two fingers on his left hand; but here he was, all fingers flying with the spirited efficiency.

It proved a welcome moment in the quartet’s current life, and itself added a significant dimension to this concert.


Classical music: The University Opera performs an unusual and original Kurt Weill cabaret this coming Friday night and Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night

October 23, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera is taking a short break from strictly operatic offerings – in the spring it will stage Puccini’s “La Bohème” — as it turns to the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950).

No ordinary medley, A KURT WEILL CABARET is an organized pastiche of 21 solos and ensembles from many diverse works by Kurt Weill (below, in a photo from the German Federal Archive), and will be presented at Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the foot of Bascom Hill.

(One of the most famous and popular Kurt Weill songs to be performed, “Alabama Song,” once covered by the rock band The Doors in the 1960s, can be heard performed by Lotte Lenya in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.; this coming Sunday, Oct. 29, at 3 p.m.; and next Tuesday night, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.

University Opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio)  will direct the show.

Chad Hutchinson (below), adjunct professor of orchestras, will conduct.

Musical preparation will be by UW-Madison collaborative pianist and vocal coach, Daniel Fung (below bottom).

Tickets are $25 for the general public; $20 for seniors; and $10 for UW students.

Here is a link to a full-length press release from the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has information about the performers and the program as well as historical background about Kurt Weill and how to purchase tickets.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/09/27/university-opera-presents-a-kurt-weill-cabaret/

For more information in general about University Opera, got to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/


Classical music: UW oboist Aaron Hill performs world premieres and little known composers in a FREE recital Sunday afternoon

October 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is Homecoming weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is busy on many counts, including several classical music concerts in the city on Sunday afternoon.

But one of the more intriguing is a FREE recital at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall by UW-Madison Professor Aaron Hill (below), who teaches oboe and also performs in the Wingra Woodwind Quintet.

Hill will be joined by collaborative pianist Daniel Fung (below), who is also a vocal coach at the Mead Witter School of Music at the UW-Madison.

Particularly noteworthy is the number of world premieres and relatively unknown contemporary composers on the program.

Here is the program:

“Poem,” for oboe and piano (1953) by Marina Dranishnikova (1929-1994, below). (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Oboe Sonata (1947) by Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)

  1. Gently Flowing
  2. Sicilienne
  3. Allegro

Intermission

* Soliloquies (2013) by Andre Myers (b. 1973)

  1. To be or not to be
  2. There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance
  3. In the Month of May
  4. Spring Discourse

   * world premiere performance

* After Manchester (2017) Aaron Hill and Michael Slon (b. 1982 and 1970, respectively) * world premiere performance

Four Personalities (2007) Alyssa Morris (b. 1984)

  1. Yellow
  2. White
  3. Blue
  4. Red

Here are some program notes by Aaron Hill:

“This program highlights five different ways to program previously unfamiliar music, as explained below.

“Poem” by Marina Dranishnikova came to me through our local community. Oliver Cardona, currently a junior music major at UW-Madison, initially brought it to my attention. The work was discovered and edited by my predecessor, Professor Marc Fink (below), during his travels in Russia.

I first heard the Oboe Sonata by Jean Coulthard (below) at the 2017 International Double Reed Society conference at Lawrence University  in Appleton, Wis.

Charles Hamann, the principal oboist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, edited and recorded it as part of a large project to bring international attention to masterpieces by Canadian composers.

Andre Myers (below) attended the University of Michigan with me and we first became acquainted when I performed one of his orchestral works. His beautiful writing for English horn started our friendship and 15 years later, he wrote his Soliloquies for me.

The first two are based on famous scenes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The third is based on a poem by Minnesota’s first poet laureate, Robert Bly, which will be read aloud from the stage. The final movement is inspired by a dream vision he had of centaurs playing in a meadow.

“After Manchester” was originally a free improvisation I recorded and posted to social media in the wake of the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert on June 4, 2017.

Later in the summer, Professor Michael Slon (below), the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Virginia, transcribed my improvisation and wrote a piano part to transform it into a piece of chamber music. The work was completed just days before the violent events in Charlottesville.

Professor Alyssa Morris (below) currently teaches oboe at Kansas State University and her compositions have become widely performed as standard literature for oboists in recent years.

She wrote “Four Personalities” to perform in her own undergraduate recital at Brigham Young University and I first heard it while searching for oboe music on YouTube. The piece is based on the Hartmann Personality Test.

In her words, the colors correspond to the following types:

Yellow: Yellow is fun-loving. The joy that comes from doing something just for the sake of doing it is what motivates and drives yellow.

White: White is a peacekeeper. White is kind, adaptable, and a good listener. Though motivated by peace, white struggles with indecisiveness. 

Blue: Blue brings great gifts of service, loyalty, sincerity, and thoughtfulness. Intimacy, creating relationships, and having purpose is what motivates and drives blue.

Red: Motivated by power. Red is aggressive and assertive. Red is visionary, confident, and proactive. 


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Classical music: American music is in the spotlight this weekend as pianist Olga Kern returns in a concerto by Samuel Barber and the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony

October 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present its second concert of the season, featuring music “From the New World.”

“From the New World” features the return of soloist Olga Kern in her take on an American classic — Samuel Barber’s only Piano Concerto — for her fourth appearance with the MSO. This piece is accompanied by Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and is followed after intermission by Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, know as the “New World Symphony,” inspired by the prairies of America.

The concerts take place in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St., on Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 2:30 p.m.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was originally written as a suite of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands” and was later orchestrated by the composer and expanded into a ballet in 1911. The piece by Ravel (below) is comprised of 11 sections, many of which are based on five fairy tales of Charles Perrault, most specifically those of his Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Tales).

The Piano Concerto was written in Samuel Barber’s mature years, and is characterized by a gain in depth of expression and technical mastery from his earlier lyrical style. The piece was met with great critical acclaim and led to Barber (below) winning his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 and a Music Critics Circle Award in 1964. (You can hear the second and third movements in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

                                                

Russian-American Pianist Olga Kern (below) is recognized as one of her generation’s great pianists. She jumpstarted her U.S. career with her historic Gold Medal win at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas as the first woman to do so in more than 30 years.

Winner of the first prize at the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition she was 17, Kern is a laureate of many international competitions. In 2016, she served as jury chairman of both the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and first Olga Kern International Piano Competition, where she also holds the title of artistic director.

Kern has performed in famed concert halls throughout the world including Carnegie Hall, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. She has appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra three times — in 2009, 2010 and 2014.

Composed in 1895 while Dvorak (below) was living in New York City, his Symphony No. 9 (often referred to as the “New World Symphony”) is said to have been inspired by the American “wide open spaces” of the prairies that he visited during a trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893.

The “New World Symphony” is considered to be one of the most popular symphonies ever written, and was even taken to the moon with Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

One hour before each performance, Anders Yocom (below, in a  photo by James Gill), Wisconsin Public Radio host of “Sunday Brunch,” will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen (below), at:

http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/2.Oct17.html

The Madison Symphony Orchestra recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert Prelude Discussion (free for all ticket-holders) one hour before the performance.

The October concerts also coincide with UW-Madison’s Homecoming Weekend celebration — another reason that MSO patrons are advised to arrive early for the concerts this weekend, especially on Friday.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

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

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets.

You can find more information at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

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

The first “Club 201 Concert and After-Party” of the season takes place on Friday, Oct. 20. The $35 ticket price includes one concert ticket ($68-$90 value), plus the after-party with hors d’oeuvres, cash bar, and one drink ticket. Club 201 Events are an opportunity for music enthusiasts 21 and over to connect with each other, and meet MSO musicians, Maestro John DeMain, and special guests.

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

Here is a direct link to find more information and to purchase tickets online: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/kern


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Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
2 Comments

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 Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


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

September 30, 2017
2 Comments

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.


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