The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: You be the critic. Was there a specific piece or an entire concert of holiday music that you especially liked – or disliked — this year?

December 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Christmas are over and we’ve just about made it through another holiday time, with Kwanzaa and New Year’s still to come.

Holiday music, especially choral music, is undeniably popular during holiday season.

Year after year, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas program (below is a photo by Peter Rodgers)  – which uses local and ethnically diverse talent and well as imported guest vocal artists — usually comes close to selling out three performances in Overture Hall.

And year after year for a decade, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir plus guest soloists (below) sell out their one performance of “Messiah” at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton.

Plus, there are lots of other holiday events – including the Madison Bach Musicians with Baroque chamber music favorites and the Madison Choral Project with spoken word narration and new music as well as programs of traditional carols and hymns– that drew good crowds or even full houses.

There are so many holiday music events, in fact, that it can often be hard to choose.

So here is what The Ear is asking: You be the critic.

Please tell us if there was a particular piece of music you especially enjoyed – say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or violin concertos by Arcangelo Corelli – music you really liked or disliked?

For next year, what do you recommend that people should keep an eye and ear out for, including programs on Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television as well as on other TV and radio stations?

Similarly, was there a specific program or event – an entire program or concert – that surprised you for better or worse?

Given the limited time that most people have during the holidays, what holiday concerts should people plan on attending or avoid next year?

Often the public trusts other audience members more than they trust professional critics.

So here is a chance for you to be a critic and to direct the public’s attention as well as to thank certain performers and groups for what you see as the Best Holiday Music of 2018.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Sept. 11. Here are 10 pieces by 10 different composers inspired by the terrorist attacks of 2001

September 11, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Sept. 11, 2018.

That makes it the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Two of the attacks took place on the Twin Towers (below) of the World Trade Center in New York City.

One took place on the Pentagon (below) in Washington, D.C.

And one, with an unknown target but perhaps either The White House or The Capitol, was thwarted on board Flight 93 when passengers forced the plane to crash in a field (below) in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In past years, The Ear has chosen certain pieces to play or link to.

This year he found a list of 10 pieces of new music, with photos of the composers and short paragraphs of background as a program note, on the website for Classic FM digital radio.

Some of the pieces and the composers he already knows – and suspects you do too. They include John Adams, Steve Reich, Joan Tower, Eric Ewazen, Ned Rorem and John Corigliano.

But there are also quite a few new titles and names, including Robert Moran, Anthony Davis, Howard Goodall and Michael Gordon. (You can hear Howard Goodall’s “Spared” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

You can find recordings on YouTube.

Here is a link to the story to help you to listen in remembrance – although silence is also perfectly appropriate:

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/memorial/classical-music-inspired-911/

Of course, lots of old music and historic composers can be suitable without being new music directly inspired by 9/11.

So please tell us: What music would you play to mark the occasion?

Leave your choice and the reason for it in the COMMENT section along with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: Happy Birthday to Lenny at 100! Here are some ways to celebrate today’s Bernstein centennial

August 25, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One hundred years ago today, the versatile and world-celebrated American musician Leonard Bernstein (below) was born.

For most of his adult life, starting with his meteoric rise after his nationally broadcast debut with the New York Philharmonic, Lenny remained an international star that has continued to shine brightly long after his death at 72 in 1990.

When his father Sam was asked why he wouldn’t pay for young Lenny’s piano lessons and why he resisted the idea of a career in music for his son, he said simply: “I didn’t know he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.”

Lenny! The name itself is shorthand for a phenomenon, for musical greatness as a conductor, composer (below, in 1955), pianist, educator, popularizer, advocate, humanitarian and proselytizer, and so much more.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography where you can check out the astonishing extent of Lenny’s career and his many firsts, from being the first major American-born and American-trained conductor — he studied at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music — to his revival of Gustav Mahler:

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

You should also view the engaging YouTube video at the bottom.

So eager have the media been to mark the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, one might well ask: “Have you had enough Lenny yet?”

New recordings and compilations of recordings have been issued and reissued.

Numerous books have been published.

Many new photos of the dramatic, expressive and photogenic Lenny (below, by Paul de Hueck) have emerged.

TV stations have discussed him and Turner Classic Movies rebroadcast several of his “Young People’s Concerts.”

For weeks, radio stations have been drowning us with his various performances, especially his performances of his own Overture to “Candide.”

Still, today is the actual Leonard Bernstein centennial and the culmination of the build-up and hype, and if you haven’t paid attention before today, chances are you wind find Encounters with Lenny unavoidable this weekend. 

Yet if you pay attention, you are sure to learn new things about Lenny who seems an inexhaustible supply of insights and interesting information, a man of productive contradictions.

With that in mind, The Ear has just a few suggestions for this weekend, with other tributes coming during the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music and other music groups and individuals.

You can start by listening to the radio.

For most of the daytime today Wisconsin Public Radio with pay homage to Lenny. It will start at 10 a.m. with Classics by Request when listeners will ask to hear favorite pieces and offer personal thoughts and memories. After that a couple of more hours of Bernstein’s music will be broadcast on WPR.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., WPR host Norman Gilliland (below top) will interview Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain (below bottom, by Prasad) about working with Lenny.

Here, thanks to National Public Radio (NPR), is the best short overview that The Ear has heard so far:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/08/24/641208843/the-complex-life-of-leonard-bernstein-a-once-in-a-century-talent

Want to know more about Lenny the Man as well as Lenny the Musician?

Try this review from The New Yorker  by David Denby of daughter Jamie Bernstein’s book (below) that has juicy anecdotes and new information about growing up with her famous father.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/leonard-bernstein-through-his-daughters-eyes

And here, from Time magazine, is the little known story of how Lenny the Humanitarian conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors (below):

http://time.com/5376731/leonard-bernstein-holocaust-survivors-concert/

What is your favorite tribute to Bernstein so far? Leave a link in the COMMENT section if you can.

What is you favorite composition by Bernstein?

What is your favorite performance by Bernstein?

What would you like to say or tell others about Leonard Bernstein?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here is what happened when the late American writer Philip Roth heard fugues by Bach and Beethoven. What do you think of his reactions?

May 31, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The late, great and award-winning American novelist Philip Roth (below) – who died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital on May 22 at age 85 – spent the last half-dozen years of his life retired and not writing.

Instead he liked to visit friends and attend concerts.

Roth was an avid fan of classical music.

So the following story about a chamber music concert by the Emerson String Quartet (below) – one of his favorite chamber music ensembles — of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Dmitri Shostakovich is especially amusing and perhaps telling to read.

What seems especially Rothian are his different reactions to fugues by Bach (below top is an unfinished manuscript page from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”) and by Beethoven (below bottom is a manuscript page from the “Grosse Fuge”).

Here is a link to the story as recounted on the blog by the famous New York City classical music radio station WQXR-FM — and be sure to read the comments by other readers:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-roth-thought-bach

You can hear the Emerson Quartet playing the opening fugal theme that Bach chose to permute for almost 90 minutes, followed by Fugue No. 9, in the YouTube videos at the bottom.

What do you think of Roth’s reactions and comments to fugues by Bach and Beethoven?

Do you agree or disagree with him?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical Music: Today is Memorial Day 2018. What music would you play to honor those who died in service to their country?

May 28, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2018, when those soldiers who died in war and military service to their country — in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard or whatever other branch — are honored. (Below is an Associated Press photo of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.)

Many blogs, newspapers and radio stations list classical music that is appropriate for the occasion.

But one of the very best overviews and compilations that The Ear has seen comes this year from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California.

Here is a link:

http://www.capradio.org/music/classical/2018/05/25/classical-selections-in-honor-of-memorial-day/

Another very good selection dates from last year and comes from Nashville Public Radio.

Perhaps that makes sense because Nashville is such a musical city.

Perhaps it has to do with other reasons.

Whatever the cause, this playlist gives you modern and contemporary composers and music (John Adams, Joseph Bertolozzi and Jeffrey Ames) as well as tried-and-true classics (Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar— the famous and moving “Nimrod” Variation that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom — Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin).

It even features some music that The Ear is sure you don’t know.

Take a look and many listens:

http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Finally, you can also hear some appropriate music for today on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Do you agree with the choices?

Do you like them or at least some of them? Which ones?

Which music would you choose or add to mark today’s holiday?

Leave a title and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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