The Well-Tempered Ear

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: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra uses a new website and a new brochure to announce its new Masterworks season plus other innovations

May 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

In many ways, there is much that is familiar or tried-and-true about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) and its new Masterworks season for 2020-21.

But in other ways it seems as if the WCO is reinventing and rebranding itself – perhaps under the direction of its new CEO Joe Loehnis – as the ensemble starts a double anniversary: its 60th season of existence and its 20th year under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below in a photo by Alex Cruz).

As in past years, the WCO programs feature a mix of familiar composers and works with new and neglected ones. It also features both new and returning guest soloists.

Start with what’s new.

The new WCO home website – like the new brochure that has been mailed out — has been redesigned, with more visuals and more information about the 34-member orchestra. The Ear finds both the new brochure and the new home page to be more attractive, better organized and easier to use. Take a look for yourself: https://wcoconcerts.org

There also seems to be a heightened emphasis on donations and raising money, including a new organization called “Friends” that brings special benefits for $30 or even more perks at $8 a month.

And the website seems more customer-friendly. There is a section on the website about “What to Expect,” which includes how to choose seats, how to dress, when to applaud and so forth. There is also a portal for streaming events and concerts.

There is more, much more, including the pre-concert dinners for the Masterworks concerts and the culturally diverse programs for the postponed Concerts on the Square (below), to run this summer on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. (NOT the usual Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) from July 28 to Sept. 1.

There seems to be more emphasis on Sewell, who this year provides extensive first-person notes about each program and the guest artists. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Sewell discuss the new Masterworks season with Wisconsin Public Radio host and WCO announcer Norman Gilliland.)

This season will see two performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: one on Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton; and another downtown on Sunday, Dec. 20, at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center.

The Masterworks series of concerts – held on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – will begin in late November rather than in late January. The six concerts include five new ones and the postponed appearance of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, whose appearance this season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 14.

Two of the concerts – on two Saturdays, Feb. 20 and April 10 – will also be performed in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts (below).

You can read more about the community outreach and music education programs, especially the Youth and Education programs. They include the free Family Series and “Side by Side” concerts (below, in a photo by Mike DeVries for The Capital Times, WCO concertmaster Suzanne Beia, right, tutors a WYSO student); the Super Strings educational program; and the Young Artists Concerto Competition for grades 9-12.

Here are the Masterworks series:

NOV. 20Pianist John O’Conor (below) returns in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Septet by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Luigi Cherubini.

JAN. 15Cellist Amid Peled (below, in a photo by Lisa Mazzucco) returns in a program of Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitry Kabalevsky and the Andante by Jacques Offenbach; plus the Wind Serenade in D minor by Antonin Dvorak; and the Symphony No. 34 by Mozart.

FEB. 19Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky (below) in returns in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”; plus the Suite for Strings by Leos Janacek.

MARCH 19Grammy-winning Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán (below) making her U.S, debut in an all-Spanish program that features the Concierto del Sur (Concerto of the South) by Manuel Ponce; the Sinfonietta in D major by Ernesto Halffter; and the overture “Los Esclavos Felices” (The Happy Slaves) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

APRIL 9Pianist Michael Mizrahi (below), who teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis., on the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven plus the Serenade No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

MAY 14Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (below) in the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera; plus the Sinfonietta by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony no. 88 by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Single tickets, which go on sale in July, are $15 to $80. Season subscriptions are available now with seat preference through July 1, bring a discounted price with an extra 10 percent off for first-time subscribers.

For more information, go to the website at https://wcoconcerts.org; call 608 257-0638; or mail a subscription form to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Attn: Subscriptions; PO Box171, Madison, WI 53701-0171.

 


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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