The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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Classical music: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates Valentine’s Day with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in the Romantic “Double Concerto” by Brahms

February 10, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of John DeMain, will celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The program “Romantic Encounter” examines the brashness of French composer Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire” Overture, as well as the thundering seriousness of American composer Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The husband-and-wife duo (below) of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and cellist Amanda Forsyth make their return to Madison to reprise their performance of German composer Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor. (You can hear the passionate slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $19 to $95. See below for details.

Says maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) about the world-renowned duo: “The married team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth return to recreate their exciting interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra.

“One of Berlioz’s finest overtures, the exhilarating Le Corsaire opens the concert. And Aaron Copland’s majestic, powerful and lyrical Third Symphony — which is one of Copland’s great masterpieces and includes his Fanfare for the Common Man — is heard on the second half of the program.”

Eight minutes long, Berlioz’s swashbuckling Le Corsaire” was composed in Nice, France, after the final break-up of his marriage. The composer resided in a tower above the sea, which explains the ruined fortification’s depiction in his overture. “Corsaire” translates to “a ship used for piracy,” but this meaning is not related to the work.

 The Double Concerto was Brahms’ final work for orchestra. He composed the concerto for his old but estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, as well as for cellist Robert Hausmann. With few recent precedents, the closest comparison to this work would be the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a soloist or small group is contrasted with an entire ensemble.

Copland’s monumental Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The work perfectly reflects the spirit of post-war America and impressively holds the title of “Greatest American Symphony.” In writing this piece, Copland (below) borrowed from himself by incorporating his triumphant Fanfare for the Common Man.

ABOUT PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

With a celebrated career encompassing five decades, Pinchas Zukerman reigns as one of today’s most sought-after and versatile musicians — violin and viola soloist, conductor and chamber musician. He is renowned as a virtuoso, admired for the expressive lyricism of his playing, singular beauty of tone, and impeccable musicianship, which can be heard throughout his discography of over 100 albums.

Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman came to the United States where he studied at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian as a recipient of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan and is a recipient of the Isaac Stern Award for Artistic Excellence in Classical Music.

ABOUT AMANDA FORSYTH

The Canadian and Juno Award-winning Amanda Forsyth is considered one of North America’s most dynamic cellists. She has achieved her international reputation as soloist, chamber musician and was principal cello of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra from 1999 to 2015. Her intense richness of tone, remarkable technique and exceptional musicality combine to enthrall audiences and critics alike.

PROGRAM NOTES, TICKETS AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. The MSO recommends that 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 that takes place one hour before each concert.

Program notes are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1920/5.Feb20.html

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

Major funding for the February concert has been provided by NBC 15; The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club; Marvin J. Levy; Fred and Mary Mohs; Nancy Mohs; and David and Kato Perlman.

Additional funding has been provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields; Boardman and Clark LLP; Forte; Barbara Melchert and Gale Meyer; 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 Middleton Community Orchestra and violinist Naha Greenholtz perform this Wednesday night in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. At noon, the FREE Just Bach concert celebrates Christmas

December 17, 2019
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ALERT 1: This Wednesday, Dec. 18, at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, Just Bach wraps up its FREE one-hour period-instrument concerts for this semester. The program features “joyous selections” from the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, and the Advent Cantata 36. For more information about the program and the performers, go to: https://justbach.org

ALERT 2: The Madison Symphony Orchestra, which just gave three sold-out performances of its Christmas concert, is holding its annual holiday ticket sale. It started Monday and runs through Dec. 31. You can save up to 50 percent on tickets to the remaining concerts of the season. For more information and to order, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/holidaysale/

By Jacob Stockinger

Looking for a break from holiday music?

This Wednesday night, Dec. 18, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison – NOT at its usual venue, the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School.

The appealing program under guest conductor Kyle Knox starts at 7:30 p.m. It features the dramatic Overture to “Die Meistersinger” (The Master Singers) by Richard Wagner (you can hear the Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom); the popular and virtuosic Symphonie Espagnole (Spanish Symphony) by French composer Edouard Lalo, with violin soloist Naha Greenholtz; and the lovely Suite from the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss.

There will be a post-concert reception in the lobby.

Admission is $15; free for students. Tickets are available at the door – student tickets are available at the door only — and at the Willy Street Coop West. The hall is at 740 University Avenue with parking in the nearby Lake Street Ramp. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and doors to the hall open at 7 p.m.

The Ear asked the co-founders and co-directors of the group – Mindy Taranto and Larry Bevic — why they chose to play in the Hamel Music Center this time. He recieved the following reply:

“We decided to rent the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below top, in photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) in the Hamel Music Center (below bottom) for several reasons.

“This is our 10th anniversary season and we wanted to give our musicians a really special experience. Many of us are curious about the new hall and are really excited to be playing there.

“Also, Kyle Knox (below) – a UW-Madison graduate and the music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras — is a phenomenal conductor and this program is exceptionally difficult and beautiful.

“It is an honor to get to perform at the UW-Madison with Kyle conducting such a beautiful program. He has brought this orchestra along so far, and for that we are incredibly grateful. He is a brilliant musician and our work with him has improved the orchestra so remarkably over the eight years he has been regularly working with us.

“We also thought that so many of our patrons enjoy our concerts when violinist Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Chris Hynes) – the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — is our soloist, and with the MSO connection, holding the concert at Hamel will hopefully boost attendance at the concert.

Naha sounds amazing and if you could see how much our musicians enjoy her annual appearance with MCO, you’d know why we want to play with her every year.

“As we conclude the first half of our 10th season, we are grateful to the musicians in MCO and to the community that supports us.

“We are probably one of the few organizations on the Madison arts scene that puts literally every dollar into music. As the two co-founders, we run the organization on a volunteer basis and we don’t spend any money on advertising.

“All of our resources go to hiring astonishing local musicians, renting performance space, and buying music to provide meaningful musical experiences for our musicians and our patrons.”

For information about how to join the orchestra, how to support it and what its remaining concerts are this season, go online to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org or call 608-212-8690.

 


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Classical music: University Opera succeeded brilliantly by setting Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1960s at Andy Warhol’s The Factory

November 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells — the Opera Guy for this blog – took in two performances last weekend of the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to three sold-out houses at Music Hall. He filed this review. Performance photos are by Benjamin Hopkins and Michael Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory of the 1960s with countertenor Thomas Alaan (below) as a Warhol-like Oberon presiding over the antics.

The opera by Britten (below) follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely. The magical transformations and herbs of the original were translated to a hallucinogen-filled milieu of go-go dancing fairies, master-slave relationships and same-sex liaisons.

And for me it worked. That is to say, this production contained the same strangeness and wonder as the traditional productions I have seen. The play itself is very strange and wonderful.

Alaan is a fine singer and played a manipulative and somewhat slimy Warhol/Oberon whose flat affect seemed to be reflected in the relative lack of expressivity in the voice. Pitted against Oberon were Amanda Lauricella and Kelsey Wang alternating as Tytania.

Although the program stated that the portrayal of Tytania was loosely based on Edie Sedgwick in this production, without the platinum hair I missed the references. Both portrayals were much more assertive than Edie ever was, and both singers’ ardent coloratura voices tended to overshadow Oberon’s, which may have been intentional. Wang (below, far right) was an intense actress who put sparks into her portrayal, while Lauricella really has a superb voice.

(Below, from left, are Michael Kelley as Puck; Thomas Alaan as Oberon; Tanner Zocher as a young man; and Kelsey Wang as Tytania.)

The four lovers (below left) seemed to be employees at The Factory. Tenor Benjamin Liupaogo portrayed Lysander. The vocal part has an uncomfortable upper range, but Liupaogo’s singing in the second act particularly was up to the challenge.

His rival Demetrius was portrayed by baritone Kevin Green. Their contending affections for Hermia and Demetrius’ initial scorn for Helena were oddly lacking in ardor.

Hermia was double cast with Julia Urbank, a promising soprano, and Chloe Agostino, who was also a very good singer. Poor Helena, first ignored and then pursued by both men, was also double cast with a terrific Rachel Love and an equally gifted Jing Liu.

(The four lovers, below from left, were: Benjamin Liupaogo as Lysander; Chloe Agostino as Hermia; Jing Liu as Helena;, Kevin Green as Demetrius; and Paul Rowe as Theseus with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyte.)

As I have noted before, the female singers in the opera program often seem to be very solid performers. (You can hear the lovers’ quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And then there were the “Rustics” (below), the workers who have come together to put on the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the upcoming wedding of the local duke, or in this case a rich art patron.

(The six rustics, below from left, were: James Harrington as Bottom; Jacob Elfner as Quince; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; Jack Innes as Starveling; Thore Dosdall as Flute; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; with Kevin Green as Demetrius, seated.)

The six men were each talented comic actors and provided many of the performance’s laughs. Foremost was James Harrington’s Bottom. Not only a very funny actor, he produced in my opinion the finest singing among the many talented students.

Mention must be made of the very amusing Flute, hysterically portrayed by Thore Dosdall, and the promising bass Benjamin Galvin as the slow learner Snug.

These men not only sang well together and separately, but also provided many guffaws whenever they appeared. (Below are: Jacob Elfner as Quince; Jeffrey Larson as Snout; James Harrington as Bottom; Jack Innes – back row up on box – as Starveling; Benjamin Galvin as Snug; and Thore Dosdall as Flute.)

Additionally we had the fairies — all female voices in this production — who sounded wonderful together and got to demonstrate their incongruous ‘60s dance moves to Britten’s score.

Professor Paul Rowe (below left, with Lindsey Meekhof as Hippolyta) made an appearance as Theseus, the duke. His singing was that of a mature artist, a quality to which the students are clearly aspiring.

As the opera drew to a close with a beautifully harmonious chorus, one felt the transformation from dissonance to harmony in the opera and conflict to resolution embodied in the original play.

Many mentions of woods and forest are made in the libretto.  Director David Ronis had the walls of the factory cleverly hung with changing arrays of Warhol-like multiple images of flowers and animals. With the amount of weed being smoked and who knows what being ingested onstage, it was easy to believe that the characters might think they were in a forest despite being in a Manhattan warehouse (below).

(The cast, below from left, included Amanda Lauricella and Thomas Alaan in the foreground as Tytania and Oberon. Others were: Julia Urbank on the floor; Benjamin Liupaogo, on the floor; Chloe Flesch; Maria Steigerwald; Amanda Lauricella; Maria Marsland; Angela Fraioli; Thomas Aláan; and James Harrington lying on the couch.)

Presiding over all of this were members of the UW Symphony Orchestra led by new conductor Oriol Sans (below). I have heard maestro Sans conduct the students several times this fall, and I feel he is an outstanding addition to the music school. His control over the forces was amazing, and the subtlety he drew from the players was remarkable.

Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio) has tried original twists in several of his previous productions, but I think this has been the most outlandish. And I have to say that I really loved it. So carry on, please.

He has a penchant for Britten, one of my favorite composers. His previous productions included “Albert Herring” and “Turn of the Screw.” I wonder if readers have suggestions for another Britten opera he could conceivably produce here. I have my own wish list.

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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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: 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: Saturday at noon, Bizet’s “Carmen” airs in cinemas during “Live from The Met in HD” and on Wisconsin Public Radio. Saturday night, the Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert of Haydn, Schumann and Shostakovich

February 1, 2019
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ALERT: This Saturday night, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet performs a FREE concert. The program offers the String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, “The Frog” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major by Dmitri Shostakovich; and the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, by Robert Schumann. For more about the unusual history of the critically acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-2/

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday, Feb. 2, the seventh production of this season’s “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” series is Georges Bizet’s lusty, sultry  and violent “Carmen,” one of the most popular operas ever composed.

Its successful world premiere was in Paris in 1875, which Bizet did not live to see. But Bizet’s masterpiece of the gypsy seductress who lives by her own rules has had an impact far beyond the opera house.

The opera’s beautiful melodies are as irresistible as the title character herself, a force of nature who has become a defining female cultural figure. (You can hear one of Carmen’s signature arias– “Love Is a Wild Bird” — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Carmen” was a scandal at its premiere but soon after became a triumphal success and has remained one of the most frequently staged operas in the world.

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine reprises her acclaimed portrayal of opera’s ultimate temptress, a triumph in her 2017 debut performances.

Opposite her is the impassioned tenor Roberto Alagna (below right, in a photo by Karen Almond for The Met) as her lover, Don José.

French native Louis Langrée (below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor), who heads the Mostly Mozart Festival and is the artistic director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, will conduct Sir Richard Eyre’s production, a Met favorite since its 2009 premiere.

The hi-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at 11:55 a.m. and runs until 3:45 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

There will be encore HD showings next Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (“Carmen” is so popular that some cities will also host a second encore showing on Saturday, Feb. 9.)

The opera will be sung in French with supertitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults, and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus Theaters website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all Met productions this season:

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a link to a synopsis and cast list:

https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/in-cinemas/hd-cast-sheets/carmen_global.pdf?performanceNumber=15202

Here is a link to other information about the production of “Carmen,” including photos and audiovisual clips:

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/carmen/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

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


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