The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Spanish music and a new concerto by Chris Brubeck

November 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present the third concert of its 92nd season.

“Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works: one written for Isbin by American composer Chris Brubeck; and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. (Isbin will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the Humanities Building on North Park Street.)

In addition the MSO will perform two 20th-century ballet suites — The Three-Cornered Hat by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla and Billy the Kid by American composer Aaron Copland.

The concerts (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. Details are below.

Invoking a sense of the American heartland, Billy the Kid was written by Copland (below) as a ballet following the life of the infamous outlaw. This piece is most well-known for the memorable “cowboy” tunes and American folk songs that paint a vivid picture of the Wild West.

The virtuosity and versatility of multiple Grammy Award-winner Sharon Isbin is on display in this program of contrasts: the jazz idioms of the American composer Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” written for Sharon Isbin, alongside the lush romanticism of the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” (You can hear Sharon Isbin play the beautiful slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The piece by Brubeck (below) contains strong hints of the jazz influence of his father, noted pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Rodrigo’s composition attempts to transport the listener to another place and time through the evocation of the sounds of nature.

Isbin’s performances of Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” have received wide acclaim: “The concerto takes off with Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity with infectious themes. The slow middle is a tender jazz-based tribute to Dave Brubeck, and Isbin played with heartfelt warmth and tenderness. The finale was an infectious rhythmically driven journey through myriad styles. It was as intriguing as it was moving … Isbin is much more than a virtuoso; she is an artist of depth.”

The Three-Cornered Hat by De Falla (below) is based on a story written by Pedro de Alarcón about a Corregidor (magistrate) who tries, without success, to seduce the pretty wife of the local miller.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor at UW-Whitewater, MSO trombonist and writer of MSO’s program notes, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read Allsen’s Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/3.Nov17.html.

The Symphony 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 pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique, and versatility, Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time.” Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, her debut concert with the MSO comes after over 170 solo performances with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Orchestre National de France, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary presented by American Public Television. Seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations throughout the US, it is also available on DVD/Blu-ray and won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” paints the portrait of a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The following is a dedicated website where you can view the trailer, read rave reviews, and see detailed broadcast dates: www.SharonIsbinTroubadour.com

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC-15, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by Scott and Janet Cabot, John DeLamater and Janet Hyde, Steven Weber, 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: UW oboist Aaron Hill performs world premieres and little known composers in a FREE recital Sunday afternoon

October 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is Homecoming weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is busy on many counts, including several classical music concerts in the city on Sunday afternoon.

But one of the more intriguing is a FREE recital at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall by UW-Madison Professor Aaron Hill (below), who teaches oboe and also performs in the Wingra Woodwind Quintet.

Hill will be joined by collaborative pianist Daniel Fung (below), who is also a vocal coach at the Mead Witter School of Music at the UW-Madison.

Particularly noteworthy is the number of world premieres and relatively unknown contemporary composers on the program.

Here is the program:

“Poem,” for oboe and piano (1953) by Marina Dranishnikova (1929-1994, below). (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Oboe Sonata (1947) by Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)

  1. Gently Flowing
  2. Sicilienne
  3. Allegro

Intermission

* Soliloquies (2013) by Andre Myers (b. 1973)

  1. To be or not to be
  2. There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance
  3. In the Month of May
  4. Spring Discourse

   * world premiere performance

* After Manchester (2017) Aaron Hill and Michael Slon (b. 1982 and 1970, respectively) * world premiere performance

Four Personalities (2007) Alyssa Morris (b. 1984)

  1. Yellow
  2. White
  3. Blue
  4. Red

Here are some program notes by Aaron Hill:

“This program highlights five different ways to program previously unfamiliar music, as explained below.

“Poem” by Marina Dranishnikova came to me through our local community. Oliver Cardona, currently a junior music major at UW-Madison, initially brought it to my attention. The work was discovered and edited by my predecessor, Professor Marc Fink (below), during his travels in Russia.

I first heard the Oboe Sonata by Jean Coulthard (below) at the 2017 International Double Reed Society conference at Lawrence University  in Appleton, Wis.

Charles Hamann, the principal oboist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, edited and recorded it as part of a large project to bring international attention to masterpieces by Canadian composers.

Andre Myers (below) attended the University of Michigan with me and we first became acquainted when I performed one of his orchestral works. His beautiful writing for English horn started our friendship and 15 years later, he wrote his Soliloquies for me.

The first two are based on famous scenes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The third is based on a poem by Minnesota’s first poet laureate, Robert Bly, which will be read aloud from the stage. The final movement is inspired by a dream vision he had of centaurs playing in a meadow.

“After Manchester” was originally a free improvisation I recorded and posted to social media in the wake of the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert on June 4, 2017.

Later in the summer, Professor Michael Slon (below), the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Virginia, transcribed my improvisation and wrote a piano part to transform it into a piece of chamber music. The work was completed just days before the violent events in Charlottesville.

Professor Alyssa Morris (below) currently teaches oboe at Kansas State University and her compositions have become widely performed as standard literature for oboists in recent years.

She wrote “Four Personalities” to perform in her own undergraduate recital at Brigham Young University and I first heard it while searching for oboe music on YouTube. The piece is based on the Hartmann Personality Test.

In her words, the colors correspond to the following types:

Yellow: Yellow is fun-loving. The joy that comes from doing something just for the sake of doing it is what motivates and drives yellow.

White: White is a peacekeeper. White is kind, adaptable, and a good listener. Though motivated by peace, white struggles with indecisiveness. 

Blue: Blue brings great gifts of service, loyalty, sincerity, and thoughtfulness. Intimacy, creating relationships, and having purpose is what motivates and drives blue.

Red: Motivated by power. Red is aggressive and assertive. Red is visionary, confident, and proactive. 


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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


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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