The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Library of Congress has commissioned new music about the coronavirus pandemic. You can listen to the world premieres from this Monday, June 15, through June 26

June 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC, exterior is below top and interior is below bottom) has started a new artistic project relevant to a public health crisis in both a historical era and the current times.

The LOC has commissioned 10 different short works, experienced in 10 different performance videos recorded at their homes — that pertain to the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 from American composers and performers.

It is called The Boccaccio Project after the Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio (below), a 14th-century Italian writer who wrote “The Decameron,” a series of stories told by 10 people who fled from Florence, Italy, to find refuge in the countryside during the Black Plague.

The musical works will start being premiered on weekdays this coming Monday, June 15, at the Library of Congress website. The works will also be broadcast on social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The website, which now has a complete list of performers and works, will soon have a complete schedule of world premieres, running on weekdays from Monday, June 15, to Friday, June 26. Then the manuscripts will be transferred to the LOC archives.

Here is a link: https://loc.gov/item/prn-20-038/

Many of the names will be unfamiliar to the general public. But an excellent story about the background and genesis of the project, including music samples, can be found on National Public Radio (NPR), which aired the story Friday morning.

Here is a link to that 7-minute story (if you listen to it rather than read it, you will hear samples of the music): https://www.npr.org/2020/06/12/875325958/a-new-library-of-congress-project-commissions-music-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic

And here are some of the participants, who are noteworthy for their ethnic and geographic diversity:

Flutronix (below) includes flutist Allison Loggins-Hull, left, and composer Nathalie Joachim.

The work by composer Luciano Chessa (below top) will be performed by violist Charlton Lee (below bottom), of the Del Sol Quartet:

And the work by Damien Sneed (below top) work will be performed by Jeremy Jordan (below bottom):

The new project strikes The Ear as a terrific and timely undertaking — the musical equivalent of the photographic project, funded and staffed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during The Great Depression of the 1930s. That project yielded enduring masterpieces by such eminent photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

But several questions arise.

How much did the project cost?

Will the general public be able to get copies of and rights to these works to perform? One assumes yes, since it is a public project funded with public money.

And will this project give rise to similar projects in other countries that are also battling the pandemic? New art – literature, films, painting, dance and so on — arising from new circumstances seems like something that is indeed worth the undertaking.

Listen to them.

What works stand out for you?

What do you think of the project?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: What will the fall concert season will look like? And what will the post-pandemic concert world be like?

May 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week, The Ear listened to and read a lot of news about COVID-19 and the arts.

And it got him thinking: What will happen this fall with the new concert season? And even later, what will a post-pandemic concert world look like? (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra in a photo by Peter Rodgers.)

As you may have heard, the Tanglewood Festival, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been canceled this year. So too has the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Locally, American Players Theatre in Spring Green also just canceled its summer season.

So far, the summer season seems to be one big cancellation for the performing arts.

True, there are some exceptions.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has yet to announce its plans for August.

One also has to wonder if crowds of up to 20,000 will feel safe enough to attend the Concerts on the Square (below), now postponed until late July and August, by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra?

Will people still want to attend the postponed Handel Aria Competition on Aug. 21 in Collins Recital Hall at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center, assuming the hall is open?

Fall events seem increasingly in question.

Last night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that sports events and concerts will be among the last mass gatherings to take place safely, probably not until next spring or summer or even later, depending on when a vaccine becomes available.

Some public health experts also offer dire predictions about how easing up lockdown restrictions too soon might lead to an even worse second wave of the coronavirus virus pandemic this autumn and winter, despite all the happy talk and blame-shifting by Team Trump.

So, what do you think will happen beyond summer?

The Ear wonders what the fallout will be from so many music groups and opera companies turning to free online performances by solo artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles.

Will season-opening concerts be canceled or postponed? What should they be? Will you go if they are held?

Will at-home listening and viewing become more popular than before?

Will the advances that were made in using streaming and online technology (below) during the lockdown be incorporated by local groups — the UW-Madison especially comes to mind — or expected by audiences?

In short, what will concert life be like post-pandemic and especially until a vaccine is widely available and a large part of the population feels safe, especially the older at-risk audiences that attend classical music events?

Will larger groups such as symphony orchestras follow the example of the downsized Berlin Philharmonic (below, in a photo from a review by The New York Times) and play to an empty hall with a much smaller group of players, and then stream it?

Will some free streaming sites move to requiring payment as they become more popular?

Live concerts will always remain special. But will subscriptions sales decline because audiences have become more used to free online performances at home?

Will most fall concerts be canceled? Both on stage and in the audience, it seems pretty hard to maintain social distancing (below is a full concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra). Does that mean the health of both performers – especially orchestras and choral groups – and audiences will be put in jeopardy? Will the threat of illness keep audiences away?

Even when it becomes safe to attend mass gatherings, will ticket prices fall to lure back listeners?

Will programs feature more familiar and reassuring repertoire to potential audiences who have gone for months without attending live concerts?

Will expenses be kept down and budgets cut so that less money is lost in case of cancellation? Will chamber music be more popular? (Below is the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet during its suspended Beethoven cycle.)

Will fewer players be used to hold down labor costs?

Will imported and expensive guest artists be booked less frequently so that cancellations are less complicated to do? 

Will many guest artists, like much of the public, refrain from flying until it is safer and more flights are available? Will they back out of concerts?

Will all these changes leave more concert programs to be canceled or at least changed?

There are so many possibilities.

Maybe you can think of more.

And maybe you have answers, preferences or at least intuitions about some the questions asked above?

What do you think will happen during the fall and after the pandemic?

What do you intend to do?

Please leave word, with any pertinent music or news link, in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Wisconsin+Public+Radio

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_E._Gawthrop

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zehavi-david

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions: https://www.wpr.org/wpr-hosts-share-music-gratitude-and-hope

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Friday night, the UW Concert Choir marks the assassination of JFK and the opening of Hamel Music Center. Plus, WYSO gives a Wisconsin premiere with a returning alumna as soloist

November 21, 2019
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ALERT: This Friday night, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra, under conductor Kyle Knox, will present a concert with two guest artists performing the Wisconsin premiere of the Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon composed for them by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, who is known for his lyricism. (Sorry, there is no word about other works on the program.) Tickets are $10, $5 for 18 years and under, and are available at the door starting at 6:15 p.m.)

The two soloists are principals with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The bassoonist is Nancy Goeres, a Lodi native who is a returning WYSO alumna. If you want to read an interview with her and get more background, you can’t do better for a preview than the piece by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and Channel 3000. Here is a link: https://www.channel3000.com/madison-magazine/arts-and-culture/wisconsin-youth-symphony-welcomes-two-special-guests/1143372727

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. this Friday, Nov. 22, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW-Madison Concert Choir (below) will perform its first solo concert in the new Hamel Music Center.

Conductor Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison who will retire at the end of this academic year, sent the following announcement:

“The a cappella program is entitled “Fall Favorites: Houses and Homecomings.”

“This year I’m particularly picking some of the pieces I like the best from my years here, although I’ll still add a few new things.

“The “Houses” part is primarily “Behold I Build an House” by American composer Lukas Foss (below), which was written for the dedication of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and which I thought was a good piece for the opening of the Hamel Music Center.

“We’re also performing the wonderful -and difficult —“Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” which British composer Herbert Howells (below top) wrote in memory of John F. Kennedy (below bottom). You’ll notice our concert is also on Nov. 22, the same day in 1963 when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. (You can hear the Howells work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Besides these two big works are wonderful motets by Orlando di Lasso, Maurice Duruflé, Heinrich Schütz and Melchior Vulpius, plus some African, American and African-American folk songs.”

 


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Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear rave-winning performances by pianist Joyce Yang and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here’s a review to read

November 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon — Sunday, Nov. 10 — at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear South Korean pianist Joyce Yang and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) under the baton of music director John DeMain.

The program features the exciting, popular and beautiful Piano Concerto No. 3 by the Russian modernist composer Sergei Prokofiev as well as “Newly Drawn Sky” by contemporary American composer and Yale School of Music professor Aaron Jay Kernis (below) and the Symphony No. 2 by the German Romantic master Robert Schumann.

For more information about the performers, the program and tickets, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/11/04/classical-music-this-weekend-prize-winning-pianist-joyce-yang-solos-in-prokofievs-most-popular-piano-concerto-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-works-by-schumann-and-aaron-jay-kernis-are/

The prize-winning Yang (below), who  at 19 won the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, rewarded a standing ovation with the late Earl Wild’s virtuosic arrangement of George Gershwin’s song “The Man I Love,” which you can hear Yang play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The reviews that have appeared so far agreed: It is a rave-winning concert with special attention going to Yang, who is making her MSO debut after performing a solo recital several years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear cannot find a link to the rave review by Bill Wineke for Channel 3000.

But here is the rapturous review that Michael Muckian wrote for Isthmus:

https://isthmus.com/music/joyce-yang-triumphs-with-prokofiev/

But you be the critic.

What did you think of Joyce Yang and the MSO?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This weekend, prize-winning pianist Joyce Yang solos in Prokofiev’s most popular piano concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Works by Schumann and Aaron Jay Kernis round out the program

November 4, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, prize-winning pianist Joyce Yang (below) will return to Madison to join the Madison Symphony Orchestra in her local concerto debut and perform Prokofiev’s brilliant, bravura and tuneful Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26.

The concert opens with Kernis’ Newly Drawn Sky and concludes with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday night, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19-$95 with discounts available. See below for details.

Speaking about the program, music director and maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “November brings us another Madison Symphony debut, that of the amazing pianist Joyce Yang. She will perform the Prokofiev’s dazzling Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the great and most popular concertos, and certainly a favorite of mine.”

Adds DeMain: “I can’t wait for audiences to experience the hauntingly beautiful Newly Drawn Sky by Aaron Jay Kernis. And of the four symphonies by Robert Schumann, many regard his second as the greatest of them all.”

According to Aaron Jay Kernis (below), who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award and who teaches at the Yale School of Music, Newly Drawn Sky” is “a lyrical, reflective piece for orchestra, a reminiscence of the first summer night by the ocean spent with my young twins, and of the summer sky at dusk.”

The chromatically shifting three-note chords that begin in the strings and transfer to the winds are a central element in the creation of this work. The works last approximately 17 minutes and was premiered at the Ravinia Festival in 2005 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

To read more about Kernis and his successful career, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Jay_Kernis

Sergei Prokofiev (below) himself played the solo part at the world premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3 on Dec. 16, 1921 in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although he started work on the composition as early as 1913, the majority of it was completed in 1921 and the piece didn’t gain popularity until 1922 when it was confirmed in the 20th-century canon. (You can hear Prokofiev play the first movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.) The Ear thinks that the work has much Russian Romanticism in it and if you like Rachmaninoff, you will probably like this Prokofiev.

Originally a composer for keyboard, Robert Schumann (below with wife Clara) began writing symphonies around the time of his marriage to his virtuoso pianist and composer wife Clara Wieck, who encouraged his compositional expansions.

The uplifting Symphony in C major was created while the composer was troubled with depression and hearing loss; a Beethovenian triumph over pessimism and despair, the creation of this symphony served as a healing process for Schumann.

ABOUT JOYCE YANG 

Blessed with “poetic and sensitive pianism” (The Washington Post) and a “wondrous sense of color” (San Francisco Classical Voice), Grammy-nominated pianist Joyce Yang, who years ago played a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, captivates audiences with her virtuosity, lyricism and interpretive sensitivity.

Yang first came to international attention in 2005 when she won the silver medal at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The youngest contestant at 19 years old, she took home two additional awards: Best Performance of Chamber Music (with the Takacs Quartet), and Best Performance of a New Work.

In 2006 Yang (below) made her celebrated New York Philharmonic debut alongside conductor Lorin Maazel at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center along with the orchestra’s tour of Asia, making a triumphant return to her hometown of Seoul, South Korea.

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, Wisconsin Public Radio host Anders Yocom (below, in a photo by James Gill )will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO 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 Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msonov19programnotes.

  • Single Tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/joyce-yang-plays-prokofiev/through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, 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 $15 or $20 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.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 8-10 vouchers for 2019-20 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Subscriptions for the 2019–2020 season are available now. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20

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

Major funding for this concert is provided by Madison Magazine, Stephen D. Morton, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, Scott and Janet Cabot, and Peggy and Tom Pyle. Additional funding provided by Foley & Lardner LLP, Howard Kidd and Margaret Murphy, 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: The fourth annual Madison New Music Festival takes place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It features Wisconsin composers and several world premieres

August 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth season of the Madison New Music Festival (below, in a photo from 2017 by Max Schmidt) will take place this coming Friday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 11.

The Madison New Music Festival is an annual, weekend-long celebration for the Madison community of classical works written by contemporary composers.

In four concerts – three with admission and one free — the festival will showcase Wisconsin-based composers and performers of new music, as well as world premiere performances by guest artists.

Tickets for each concert are $15 for adults and $5 for students. Subscriptions to all three concerts are available for $35. For more information, go to http://madisonnewmusic.org or to Facebook (@Madison New Music Festival) or Instagram (@madisonnewmusic).

Here is the line-up:

Concert 1: Music from Wisconsin – Friday, Aug. 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (227 State St.)

What: In anticipation of this fall’s Wisconsin Triennial and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, this concert spotlights all Wisconsin-born, -based, or -educated composers, curated by pianist Robert Fleitz (below, with a toy piano he often performs on), whom The New York Times called “mesmerizing.” Joined by young local musicians, Fleitz explores music created right here in their own backyard.

Concert 2: World Premieres – Saturday, Aug. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium (900 University Bay Drive)

What: Internationally acclaimed violist Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Wisconsin-born pianist Karl Larson (below top) will give the world premieres of new viola sonatas from three of the world’s leading composers: Andrew Norman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Scott Wollschleger. In addition, local cellist James Waldo will kick off the evening with a premiere of a work for solo cello by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Les Thimmig (below bottom).

Concert 3: SistaStrings – Sunday, Aug. 11, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Robinia Courtyard (829 East Washington Avenue)

What: The concert features the Milwaukee-based sister duo SistaStrings (below, in a photo by Adam Ryan Morris). Violinist Chauntee Ross and cellist Monique LaDora Ross blend their training as accomplished classical instrumentalists with “R&B and a touch of gospel influence that culminates in a vibey, lush sound.” The sisters will play tracks from their new and acclaimed Extended Play recording in the cozy courtyard. (You can hear them in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Partner concert: Madison New Music Ensemble (FREE concert) – Sunday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m.

Where: Memorial Union Terrace (800 Langdon Street, below)

What: Join the newly formed Madison New Music Ensemble (below top), led by UW-Madison composer Joseph Koykkar (below bottom), at the Memorial Union Terrace as part of their Summer Serenade series. The group will perform works by Koykkar, Ian Clarke, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gareth Farr and Kirsten Volness.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 2019
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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. 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 mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


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