The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The worldwide virtual and online gala fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition starts today and runs through Oct. 1. Donations will be matched up to $2,000

September 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from Orange and Dean Schroeder, the co-founders of the now well-established Handel Aria Competition.

As you may already know, the in-person competition has been postponed until 2021.

The Schroeders say that a virtual online competition for this year was considered, but then dismissed. It would have been too risky to the health of the singers, many of whom have to travel nationally and internationally to compete, and to the accompanying players from the Madison Bach Musicians.

The sound quality also did not meet the standards that the organizers say is necessary to do justice to competitors. Some of the performances are from past competitions But others are new and were done at home during lockdowns.

Perhaps most important of all, the Schroeders wanted to raise money to help the young competitors, whose careers have suffered from concert cancellations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is the message:

“Today – Thursday, Sept. 10 — is the start of the Handel Aria Competition’s Virtual Gala to raise funds for our past finalists. It will start at 7:30 p.m. CDT.

“The program includes performances by Morgan Balfour, Elisa Sutherland, Chelsea Shephard, Sarah Coit, Andrew Rader, Nola Richardson, Amanda Achen, Jonathan Woody (singing an aria from “Messiah” in the YouTube video at the bottom), Sarah Moyer, Corrine Byrne, Margaret Fox, Gene Stenger, Emily Yocum Black, Sarah Hayashi, Daniel Moody, Christina Kay, Jacob Scharfman, Brian Giebler and Kristin Knutson.

A performance by the Handel Aria Competition’s director and UW-Madison graduate student soprano Sarah Brailey (below) with Luthien Brackett and the musicians from the Trinity Wall Street Baroque Orchestra in New York City is the finale.

“People around the world can watch it on our Facebook page Handel Aria Competition; on YouTube; or on our website at https://handelariacompetition.org.

“It will be available for viewing ‪from 7:30 p.m. CDT today, Sept. 10, through Thursday, Oct. 1 — NOT Oct. 10 as mistakenly stated above.

“It is FREE but donations are encouraged to support the singers during Covid-19.

“Viewers can donate via Facebook or through our website. All funds will go to the singers, including a challenge grant of $2,000 that Dean and I have pledged in order to encourage others to support these talented young artists.

“The Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala is supported by funds from Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.”

 


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Classical music: A good pandemic project for the Beethoven Year is to follow Boris Giltburg as he learns and posts all 32 piano sonatas in one year

May 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of ways that musicians are celebrating the Beethoven Year of 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

One of the most interesting ways also makes for an engaging and ongoing coronavirus pandemic project.

The prize-winning Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg (below in a photo by Sasha Gusov) is learning all 32 piano sonatas in one year.

It is a formidable challenge, not only because most of the sonatas are technically and musically difficult, but also because the pianist says he has played only nine of the 32 sonatas before.

Giltburg’s videos feature not only fine playing and interpretations, but also a very readable and informative diary he writes that includes notes – also available in German on the website — about the sonatas and about what the process of learning and playing them has been like.

His approach works and makes you a vicarious participant in the major undertaking.

He posts performances of the sonatas every few weeks. He is learning and posting them in chronological order so you get a sense of the evolution. Giltburg is now up to Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1.

Here is some background about Giltburg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Giltburg

And here is a link to more background at his personal website where you can also find information about his other recordings for Naxos (he is known for his Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev) and concerts: https://borisgiltburg.com

But the heart of the project is at Beethoven32.com where you can find the sonatas starting from the first.

The Ear likes hearing them this way.

Listening to them one at a time and reading about them seems a less overwhelming way to become familiar with what is called “The New Testament” – as compared to the Old Testament of the 48 preludes and fugues in Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

The Ear finds the playing first-rate and the sound quality excellent with great close-up videos of the keyboard and Giltberg’s playing.

Here is a link to the main website, which is easier than hunting for individual sonatas on YouTube: https://beethoven32.com

The Ear suggests starting at the bottom with Giltberg’s introduction and then working your way up one at a time, allowing time to appreciate both the music and his diary notes.

To get you started, here his introduction to the project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeBrn_kwvfg

And below is his performance the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1.

Let us know what you think of Giltberg as a Beethoven interpreter and what you think of his sonata project.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2020 goes virtual and wants your audio-video contribution. Plus TONIGHT, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra streams its Dec. 27 concert at the UW

March 27, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, March 27, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will be streaming its sold-out premiere performance (below) on Dec. 27 in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center. If you couldn’t get seats for the in-person performance, you can tune in for FREE tonight.

The program is: “Poet and Peasant Overture” by Suppe; the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, by Robert Schumann with pianist Jason Kutz; the Overture to “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Offenbach; the “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by Bizet and “What a movie” from the opera “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein, both with mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss; and the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61, by Saint-Saens with Rachel Barton Pine. WCO music director Andrew Sewell conducts.

For a link and  portal to the streamed video, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/wisconsin-chamber-orchestra-live/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director Marika Fischer Hoyt (below) about the decision to make this year’s Bach Around the Clock a virtual event with a call for community submissions:

The BATC Board of Directors shares the keen disappointment that all music lovers feel at the sudden, shocking collapse of the current concert season.

The BATC 2020 Festival was fully booked, and we had looked forward to 12 hours of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by musicians ranging from young students to adult amateurs to seasoned professionals, all to celebrate the composer’s 335th birthday.

Sadly, that was not to be.

But thinking outside of the box, the Board has decided to try something new: the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.

We invite local musicians to submit video or audio recordings of themselves singing or playing a selection by Bach. If you’d like, you can also talk at the beginning of your recording, explaining what music by Bach (below) means to you, and why you chose this particular piece. Or feel free to write your thoughts on this subject, and we’ll include that text with your recording.

We reach out especially to those who were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, and those who have performed with us in the past. But we are very happy to include newcomers to our BATC community as well.

Performers can click on Performers Guide for Media Submissions to find instructions for audio or video file submission.

We request that files be of musical selections 20 minutes or less. If a piece is longer than that, please record the piece in two files.

Our tech team will preview clips for technical quality, upload them to the BATC YouTube channel, and post them on our website and then on our Facebook page, for everyone to enjoy.

BATC plans to launch the Virtual Festival this Saturday, March 28, at 10 a.m., the time the original in-person Festival was scheduled to begin.

We will add new videos every day at 10 a.m., as long as submissions keep coming in. (Below are the Suzuki Strings of Madison performing during a past BATC.)

The BATC Board hopes this Virtual Festival gives local musicians an outlet for sharing their talent and passion with the warmly appreciative local community.

Live music nourishes the soul of performer and audience member alike, and the transcendent, life-giving joy woven into the music of Bach is something we need, now more than ever. (Below is a performance from last year’s Bach Around the Clock.)

For more information, go to: https://bachclock.com and https://www.facebook.com/batcmadison


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu_Lupu

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: On Thursday and Friday nights, brass music and a modernist homage to Martin Luther King round out UW-Madison concerts before spring break

March 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Spring Break at the University of Wisconsin-Madison starts on Saturday. But there are noteworthy concerts right up to the last minute.

THURSDAY

On this Thursday night, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the acclaimed Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, in 2017, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) will perform a FREE concert.

The program by the faculty ensemble  includes music by William Byrd; Isaac Albeniz; Leonard Bernstein; Aaron Copland; David Sampson; Anton Webern; Joan Tower; Ennio Morricone; and Reena Esmail.

For more details, including the names of quintet members and guest artists who will participate as well as the complete program with lengthy notes and background about the quintet, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wisconsin-brass-quintet-3-14-2019/

FRIDAY

On this Friday night, March 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) – who worked in Paris with the renowned 20th-century composer and conductor Pierre Boulez – will host another concert is his series of “Le Domaine Musical” that he performs with colleagues.

Vallon explains:

Every year, I put together a concert devoted to the masterpieces of the 1950-2000 period. We call it “Domaine Musical,” which was the group founded in Paris by Pierre Boulez in the 1950s. Its subtitle is : “Unusual music for curious listeners.”

“The series offers Madison concert-goers an opportunity to hear rarely performed music of the highest quality, played by UW-Madison faculty, students and alumni.

“The program features a deeply moving piece by Luciano Berio, O King, written in 1968 after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.” (You can hear “O King” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The all-modernist program is:

Pierre Boulez (below), Dialogues de l’Ombre Double (Dialogues of the Double Shadow) for solo clarinet and electronics.

Luciano Berio (below), O King and Folk Songs.

Also included are unspecified works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Timothy Hagen.

Guest performers are Sarah Brailey, soprano (below); Alicia Lee, clarinet; Leslie Thimmig, basset horn; Sally Chisholm, viola; Parry Karp, cello; Timothy Hagen, flute; Yana Avedyan, piano; Paran Amirinazari, violin; and Anthony DiSanza, percussion.

For more information, including a story about a previous concert in “Le Domaine Musical,” go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/le-domaine-musical-with-marc-vallon/


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