The Well-Tempered Ear

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
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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 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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Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


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