The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the Madison Bach Musicians explore the miracle of Mozart across his lifetime and across different genres

April 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians concludes its 15th season on this coming Saturday night, April 6, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 7, at 3:30 p.m. with  The Mozart Miracle .

The program features performances of beloved music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, below) with an all period-instrument chamber orchestra in the magnificent acoustic setting of the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall Stadium.

Period-instrument specialists hailing from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City will perform on natural or valveless horns, classical oboes, gut-strung violins, violas, cellos and a double bass played with 18th-century transitional bows.

Early music specialist and bassoon professor Marc Vallon (below to, in a photo by James Gill) of UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will lead the orchestra (below bottom, in a performance last year at the First Unitarian Society of Madison).

Internationally acclaimed soprano Ariadne Lih (below), from Montreal, Canada, will join the ensemble for  Exsultate Jubilate — a ringing example of how Mozart could seamlessly fuse religious zeal with vocal pyrotechnics. (You can hear Renée Fleming sing “Exsultate Jubilate” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program also features dance sequences, choreographed by Karen McShane Hellenbrand (below) of the UW-Madison, from Mozart’s ballet Les Petits Riens  (The Little Nothings).

Also included are pre-concert lectures: On Saturday, April 6, at 7:15 p.m.  there is a lecture by MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson with an 8 p.m. concert . On Sunday, April 7, his lecture is at 2:45 p.m.  with the concert at 3:30 p.m.

Advance-sale discounted  tickets are $35 for general admission.

Tickets are available at  Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (East and West). You can also buy advance tickets online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are:  $38 general for adults, $35 for seniors 65-plus, and student rush for $10, on sale 30 minutes before lecture.

MBM artistic director Stephenson (below) sent the following remarks to The Ear:

Here are two fantastic quotations about Mozart:

“Together with the puzzle he gives you the solution.” Ferrucio Busoni on Mozart

“It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together as a family, they play Mozart…” Karl Barth

Both quotes underline, I believe, Mozart’s charismatic generosity of spirit, his sense of play and camaraderie. We’re all in this together! Mozart’s music is a perfect fusion of melodic inspiration — tunes so good they can stay in your head for joyous weeks at a time, or even a lifetime — and structural clarity.

His sense of proportion — when to display 18th-century balance and when to step outside the frame — is uncanny and always a delight. And for me, as a five-year-old-boy, dancing about the living room to the old LP vinyl — dancing lightly, though, so the record wouldn’t skip — it was Mozart’s boundless energy and joy, pouring out of the speakers, that really revved me up.

The Madison Bach Musicians program on this coming Saturday and Sunday will explore several sides of Mozart’s genius: master orchestrator and symphonist; aficionado of fugues; virtuoso keyboard player and mesmerizing improviser; ballet composer; and the greatest fashioner of material for the soprano voice.

MBM has assembled a Classical-period chamber orchestra, replete with gut strings and transitional bows, natural horns, and classical oboes. To this we’ll add: a fortepiano — the type of instrument Mozart toured with; an elegant dancer — for dance was an integral part of 18th-century living; and a magnificent soprano — Mozart was virtually besotted with the magic of the high female voice, and he wrote for it throughout his life with imagination and a sense of thrilling experiment that has never been equaled before or since.

Here is a bit about each selection:

Symphony No. 1 in E-flat majorComposed 1764 when Mozart was just eight years old (below), during an extended stay in London with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl. Strongly influenced by the symphonies of C. F. Abel and J. C. Bach (The London Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian).

Symphony No. 29 in A majorComposed 1774 when Mozart was 18 years old (below). It is often considered the pinnacle of his early symphonic writing.

Exsultate Jubilate  for soprano and orchestra – Written 1773 in Milan for the castrato, or male soprano, Venanzio Rauzzini, it is an elegant fusion of rapturous melodies and vocal display.

Adagio & Fugue  in C minor for strings – Composed in 1788, certainly the latest Mozart work on the program when the composer was 32. Mozart had by this time — largely through the Sunday soirees at Baron van Swieten’s—been studying Bach’s fugues closely for several years. This fugue is an arrangement of a work for two fortepianos, K. 426, which Mozart had composed five years earlier in 1783. Mozart added the opening Adagio for the strings version.

Fantasy in D minor for fortepiano – Mozart improvised frequently as part of both private and public performance. This Fantasy, with its dark distinctive opening which explores the fantastical low register of the fortepiano, may give us a good idea of what Mozart might have done one night just sitting down to “jam” for his friends.

Two French Songs for soprano and fortepiano — Birds follow the warm weather, so they never cease their courtship. And in the woods one day the protagonist foolishly rouses a sleeping Cupid — and pays a terrible price.

Ballet excerpts from  Les Petit Riens – literally The Little Nothings. Mozart composed most, but not all, of this ballet in Paris 1778 for Jean-Georges Noverre, ballet master of the Paris Opera. The work served as an interlude to an opera by Niccolo Piccinni that closed after just four performances.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


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Classical music: Charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

November 24, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below, in a 2006 photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times) had it all.

Most importantly, the great opera singer, concert singer and recitalist possessed a superb voice with wonderful tone and breath control that allowed him to even beat out Bryn Terfel to win Singer of the World at a competition in Cardiff, Wales.

But he also had handsome face and fit beefcake body that made him a believable actor in so many roles and proved a pleasure to watch on stage.

And what about that fabulous mane of prematurely white hair that became his signature?

But on Wednesday, the acclaimed Siberian singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky — who was well on his way to becoming a superstar — lost a two-year bout with brain cancer.

He died at 55 – but not after winning plaudits for unexpected appearances at the Metropolitan Opera (below) and Carnegie Hall even while he was ill.

Here are two obituaries.

The first comes from the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) and features three samples of his singing as well as some memorable interview quotes, including the renowned singer’s unapologetic take on his own sex appeal (below) that landed him in People magazine:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/11/22/565450465/dmitri-hvorostovsky-renowned-baritone-dies-at-55

And here is a longer obituary, also with samples, from The New York Times. It includes a lot of background about the singer’s early life and career:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/arts/music/dmitri-hvorostovsky-dead.html

Did you ever see or hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in person or perhaps in “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts? (He sings two folk songs in the YouTube memorial video at the bottom.)

And for those of you can judge singers better than The Ear can, what was your opinion of the Russian baritone?

Did you have a favorite role or aria you liked him in?

The Ear wants to know.


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


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