The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On this Memorial Day, The Ear honors not only soldiers but also civilians, COVID-19 victims and all those responders and workers who serve the public

May 25, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2020.

It is of course a largely military holiday. Most of the planned public events will be to honor those who died in service to their country. That usually means fallen soldiers and deceased veterans.

It also means that military cemeteries – like Arlington National Cemetery, below — will be decorated with American flags.

But The Ear doesn’t think we should forget that there are many ways to serve your country and protect the public, many kinds war and self-sacrifice.

Let’s not forget civilians, especially since worldwide more than twice the numbers of civilians died in World War II than did members of the armed forces. Lives are taken as well as given.

A larger definition of “national service” also seems especially timely since this weekend the U.S. is likely to surpass 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. They include many first responders and frontline workers (below) as well as grocery store workers and delivery drivers. Even “small” occupations have big heroes. There is no reason not to be more inclusive.

There are traditional kinds of music to honor the dead. They include requiems and elegies, military marches and funeral marches. And in the comment section you should feel free to suggest whatever music you think would be appropriate.

But The Ear found a piece he thinks is both unusual and ideal.

It is called “Old and Lost Rivers” by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (below). It is a beautiful, moving and contemplative piece, based on an actual place in Texas, that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But you should know this about the work’s title.

With rivers, “lost” doesn’t mean forgotten or misplaced.

One dictionary defines it as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway” – and eventually often becomes part of a larger body of water such as a lake or the ocean.

It can also mean rivers that appear during heavy rain and then disappear when they evaporate during a drought.

Somehow, those images serve as fitting metaphors for our losses and that music seems a very appropriate way to honor those who sacrifice themselves and disappear in service to others.

The Ear hopes you agree.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra cancels concerts and events through June. Here are details and links about ticket donations, exchanges and refunds

April 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has canceled or postponed concerts and events that would have taken place in April, May and June 2020 in response to the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

“We have been continuously monitoring the latest news and guidance from our public officials throughout this pandemic,” Executive director Rick Mackie said. “All of us here at the MSO are saddened not to be able to share our final two symphony concerts and organ season finale performance with our audiences and community.

“It is with confidence and optimism that we look forward to welcoming you back to the beautiful experience of concerts in Overture Hall that are a part of both our 2020-21 “Beethoven and Beyond” symphony season and new organ series that begin this September.”

Here are more details:

APRIL AND MAY CONCERT CANCELLATIONS AND TICKET OPTIONS

The MSO’s April 3, 4 and 5 “Dvorak Requiem” subscription season concerts were canceled last month due to the closure of Overture Center through April 24, 2020 and the recommendations of local, state and national officials.

Ticket-holders were notified and given the option of donating their tickets back to the MSO, exchanging tickets for a new 2020-21 season concert, or requesting a refund. The MSO is grateful that a majority of people have chosen to donate their tickets to date.

The MSO’s May 1, 2 and 3 “Piano Power” season finale concerts, with Yefim Bronfman, are also now canceled. Patrons who have tickets for these subscription season concerts have received an email giving them the options to donate, exchange or receive a refund. Due to the cancellation of the concerts, the open rehearsal scheduled for Thursday, April 30, will also not take place.

SUPPORT FOR OUR MUSICIANS

The care of the MSO Board of Directors for the well-being and sustenance of our artists has been manifest from the outset of the coronavirus emergency.

We understand that the musicians will need our help keeping their lives together. The decision was made to pay the musicians of the orchestra for both the April and May subscription concerts.

MAY 5, 2020 OVERTURE CONCERT ORGAN PERFORMANCE POSTPONED

The May 5 Overture Concert Organ performance — “Greg Zelek (below in a photo by Peter Rodgers) with the Diapason Brass and Timpani” — is now postponed. When a new date is secured, we will notify ticket-holders about their options.

EDUCATION EVENTS

MSO’s Education and Community Engagement Programs, including Symphony Soup scheduled for May 18 and 19, and Link Up scheduled for May 20-21, have been canceled for this year. HeartStrings® and Up Close & Musical® events have previously been canceled.

2020 JUNE CONCERT ON THE GREEN

The Madison Symphony Orchestra League’s 2020 Concert on the Green annual fundraiser that was scheduled to take place on Monday, June 15, has been canceled for this year. The League’s event committee is already working on plans to bring the event back in 2021. More information about the date for the event next year will be announced as soon as it is available.

Here are helpful links to more information about Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts and events.

April 3, 4, 5 and May 1, 2, 3 symphony season concerts, ticket options: https://madisonsymphony.org/tickets

 May 5 organ performance postponement: https://madisonsymphony.org/organzelek

2020 Concert on the Green: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/concert-on-the-green-2020/

Upcoming Concerts & Events page (updated continually): https://madisonsymphony.org/events-list/

Learn more about MSO’s Education and Community Engagement Programs: https://madisonsymphony.org/education-community/

View the new 20/21 “Ode to Joy: Beethoven and Beyond” season that starts in September, 2020 (subscriptions available now): https://madisonsymphony.org/20-21

The MSO continuously composes and presents a series of News and Stories at https://madisonsymphony.org/news-stories/to keep the essential connection with its staff, audiences, artists and community alive. Explore two recent stories of note.

April 30, 2020, Experience Dvorak’s Requiem Virtually: https://madisonsymphony.org/experience-dvorak-requiem-virtually/

March 27, 2020, A Message from MSO maestro John DeMain: https://madisonsymphony.org/march-2020-message-from-john-demain/


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Classical music: Local groups stream videos to entertain home-bound listeners, and perhaps to promote their next seasons. Plus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra cancels and postpones its May concerts

April 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cancellations and postponements aren’t the only effects that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic are having on the local classical music scene.

Many local ensembles – much like such national and international organizations as the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra — are also starting to offer free streamed performances, some of them archival and some of them are specially performed.

Bach Around the Clock even held a virtual festival this year that featured many different original recorded performances spread out over many days and continues.

Why are they doing so?

Certainly to help entertain the public while they weather the boredom and loneliness of social distancing and sheltering in place at home. Music can comfort.

Perhaps they are also doing so as a smart marketing move to stay in the public’s consciousness despite cancellations and to indirectly promote their upcoming seasons.

Here are some examples:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is offering a link to a YouTube performance — by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra below) — of the Dvorak Requiem, which the MSO orchestra and chorus were supposed to perform this weekend but had to cancel.

The video also has a message from music director John DeMain; texts and translations from the Czech; a special pre-concert talk and program notes for the Requiem by J. Michael Allsen; and a link to the MSO’s 2020-21 season.

Here is a link: https://madisonsymphony.org/experience-dvorak-requiem-virtually/

In other MSO news: The concerts with pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms on May 1, 2 and 3 and the open rehearsal on April 30 are now canceled, and the May 5 organ performance has been postponed.

For those who hold tickets for May concerts, the MSO will be announcing options for donation, exchange and refunds sometime this weekend or next week.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), which recently streamed its December concert in the UW’s Hamel Center, has started a special “Coucherto” series – it’s a pun on concerto and couch – of special at-home concerts by individual musicians in the WCO for those listeners who are staying at home.

The project uses social media including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo and at the WCO’s home website. Also included is an invitation by music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO’s next season hasn’t been announced yet, but should be soon.

Here is a link: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/about/coucherto/

For its part, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which is facing uncertainty about its June concert series, which focuses on Beethoven’s piano trios – is offering selected chamber music performances from its past seasons that are on BDDS’ YouTube channel.

It too has comments and the program lineup for its season this summer.

Here is a link: https://bachdancing.org/watch-listen/video/

Have you seen any of these videos?

What do you think of them?

Dp you think they work as marketing strategies?

Have you discovered sites for streaming classical music that you recommend to others?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: With live concerts cancelled, what will you do for music? The Ear has some suggestions but wants to hear your ideas

March 16, 2020
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ALERT 1: It’s official. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its performances of Dvorak’s Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5. Sometime this week, according to the MSO website, the administration will inform ticket holders about what they can do.

ALERT 2: The Mosaic Chamber Players have cancelled their performance of Beethoven Piano Trios on March 21 at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

By Jacob Stockinger

Now that live concerts and performances have been cancelled for the near future – thanks to the threat of the pandemic of the coronavirus and COVID-19 — music-lovers are faced with a problem:

What will we – especially those of us who are isolated at home for long periods of time — do to continue to listen to music?

Perhaps you have a large CD collection you can turn to. Or perhaps you subscribe to a streaming service such as Apple Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music or another one.

Don’t forget local sources such as Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-FM 89.9, both of which generously broadcast classical music, from the Renaissance to contemporary music, and often feature local performers.

Here is a link to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR): https://www.wpr.org

Here is a link to WORT 88.9 FM: https://www.wortfm.org

There are also many other choices.

Happily, there is YouTube with its mammoth collection of free musical performances and videos. You can surf YouTube for new music and classic music, contemporary performers and historic performers, excerpts and complete works.

Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com

Those who are students or amateurs might use the time to sing – like those marvelous, uplifting Italians making music from their balconies during the crisis – or practice and play an instrument at home.

But other organizations – solo performers, chamber music ensembles, symphony orchestras, opera houses – are also trying to meet the challenge by providing FREE public access to their archives.

And it’s a good time for that.

Music can bring us together in this crisis.

Music can help us relax, and fight against the current panic and anxiety.

It’s also a good time to have a music project. Maybe you want to explore all the many symphonies or string quartets of Haydn, or perhaps the 550 keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti, or perhaps the many, many songs of Franz Schubert.

Here are some suggestions offered as possible guidance:

Here is what critics for The New York Times, including senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) who likes Van Cliburn playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, will do: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/arts/music/coronavirus-classical-music.html

If you are an opera lover, you might want to know that, starting today, the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City will be streaming for FREE a different opera every day or night.

The productions are video recordings of operas that have been broadcast over past years in the “Live in HD” program. The titles are listed by the week and here is a link:

https://operawire.com/metropolitan-opera-to-offer-up-nightly-met-opera-streams/

If you like orchestral music, it is hard to beat the Berlin Philharmonic – considered by many critics to be the best symphony orchestra in the world — which is also opening up its archives for FREE.

Here is a background story with a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/coronavirus-concerts-the-music-world-contends-with-the-pandemic

Here is another link, from Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc,” to the Berlin Philharmonic along with some other suggestions, including the Vienna State Opera: https://slippedisc.com/2020/03/your-guide-to-the-new-world-of-free-streaming/

And if you like chamber music, you can’t beat the FREE performances being offered by the acclaimed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, some of whom recently performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra: https://www.chambermusicsociety.org/watch-and-listen/

But what about you?

What will you listen to?

Where will you go to find classical music to listen to?

Do you have certain projects, perhaps even one to recommend?

How will you cope with the absence of live concerts?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Middleton Community Orchestra, Festival Choir, Oakwood Chamber Players and First Unitarian Society cancel concerts because of the coronavirus

March 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The state health emergency declared by Gov. Tony Evers has now become a national emergency declared by President Trump.

Six more local groups have cancelled concerts as the pandemic of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads exponentially and threatens the health of both the public and the performers:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) has cancelled its concert TONIGHT of Yiddish music at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) has cancelled and postponed all concerts through March. They include the “Beethoven Lives Next Door” Family Series concerts THIS MORNING at the Goodman Community Center and on March 29 in Brookfield; and the third Masterworks Concert in Madison with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis on March 27 in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Says Joe Loehnis, CEO of the WCO: “We ask for your patience as we work to determine all of the options we will be able to offer to ticket holders. We are deeply grateful for your understanding.

“We’ll also keep you informed of the status of all our upcoming performances as we continue to monitor the situation closely over the coming days and weeks.

“To learn more about our contingency planning, please visit our website at http://bit.ly/2wSMCbe.

“If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call us at (608) 257-0638, or email, wco@wcoconcerts.org.

“Thank you for your patronage and support.”

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) have cancelled their concerts on Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22, at Oakwood Village University Woods on the far west side.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below, below in a photo by Brian Ruppert) has cancelled its upcoming concert of teenage concerto winners with guest conductor Kyle Knox on Wednesday, April 8, and postponed it until large gatherings become safe again.

The FREE Friday Noon Musicale series at the First Unitarian Society of Madison will be live-streamed without an audience. Says music director Drew Collins:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the First Unitarian Society of Madison will alter the schedule for its Friday Noon Musicale recital series.

Beginning March 20, 2020…

* No audience members will be permitted.

* Outside doors will be locked.

* In cases where the performers are not able or willing to play, notification will be made via https://nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=www.fusmadison.org%2Fmusicale&data=02%7C01%7C%7Cce899e33b3124e28489608d7c70cdac6%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637196730328671160&sdata=069CmBdvgPRWjGi%2BiCEUdeD%2Fth2zVBJlzJowWcnH%2BFc%3D&reserved=0and no live-stream will be broadcast.

“Stay tuned for the upcoming launch of our SoundCloud channel, curated by Rich Samuels, where you will be able to listen to highlights from the Musicales.

In related news, the Madison Symphony Orchestra announced Friday that it will make a decision about upcoming concerts next week. But since the Overture Center later announced it is closing its doors until April 13 and cancelling all performances, it would seem that the MSO performances of the Dvorak Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5 will be cancelled. But that has not yet been officially confirmed by the MSO.

In addition, the Madison Opera has cancelled its production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” on April 17 and 19.


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Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison performs Yiddish music Saturday night. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs the child-friendly “Beethoven Lives Next Door” for FREE twice on Saturday morning

March 11, 2020
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ALERT: Do you have children or grandchildren you want to introduce to classical music? This Saturday morning, March 14, at 9:15 and 11:15 a.m. in the Goodman Community Center, at 149 Waubesa Street on Madison’s near east side, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will give two FREE public performances of “Beethoven Lives Next Door.” The interactive, multi-media event includes live music and story-telling, and is designed for children age 4-10 and their families. Because space is limited, advance registration is strongly recommended. You can register for one of the performances by going to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances

By Jacob Stockinger

The Festival Choir of Madison will present its second concert of the season, “Ner Tamid: Eternal Flame,” on this Saturday night, March 14, at 8 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive.

The choir (below), under the artistic direction of Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below, front right)  will perform songs drawing on Yiddish folklore, Klezmer innovations, the pain and cultural fusion of the diaspora, and the poignancy of love in the Holocaust.

Spanning geography and time, this array of Sephardic folk songs, Middle Eastern melodies, the high European tradition of the late 19th century, and contemporary settings of ancient texts paints a rich picture of the breadth of Jewish musical tradition.

The performance includes works by Gustav Mahler, Jacob Weinberg (below top) and Alberto Guidobaldi (below bottom) for classical composers, as well as Paul Ben Haim and Josef Hadar, who are more contemporary Israeli and Jewish composers, respectively.

The Festival Choir of Madison (FCM) is an auditioned, mixed-voice volunteer choir of over 50 experienced singers. FCM performs thematic concerts of artistically challenging choral music from around the world for listeners who enjoy traditional, modern, and eclectic works, and for singers who enjoy developing their talents with others.

The choir performs three thematic concerts annually in November, March and May. It also serves as the core choir for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s annual “Messiah” concert. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Festival Choir of Madison perform “The West Lake” by Chinese composer Chen Yi in 2019.)

Concert admission — general seating — is $10 for students, $15 for senior citizens, and $20 for adults, with tickets available at the door the day of the concert. Tickets can also be purchased online at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4383496

To learn more about the choir and see details about its May 16 performance of Mozart’s Requiem, visit: www.festivalchoirmadison.org

 


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Classical music: Barbara DeMain — wife of Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain — has died

February 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Barbara DeMain (below) — the wife of John DeMain, the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera — died Thursday.

A member of the orchestra sent the following note:

“Earlier today, we received some very tragic news from the orchestra office.

“Barbara DeMain passed away earlier this morning after becoming ill late last evening.

“She was admitted to a hospital last evening while John was in rehearsal with the opera.

“Their daughter Jenny (below top on right, with her father) drove to Madison from Chicago and she and John (below bottom left, with Barbara) were with her all night until she passed.

“This is very tragic news, and we’re all wanting to reach out in any way we can to support the DeMain family. Once plans are made for a memorial or funeral, we’ll send the information out as quickly as possible.”

“Thank you all for keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.”

The Ear has heard that John DeMain plans on conducting the opera this weekend and the three MSO performances next weekend.

But he has not been able to verify that or other details about Barbara, who was born in Germany as Barbara Dittman, and met John in Houston, where he was the director of the Houston Grand Opera, in 1991. They married soon after meeting, and have been in Madison for 26 years. Barbara was a political activist and an arts consultant.

The Ear will pass along more details as he learns them.

Below — dedicated to Barbara DeMain — is a YouTube video of the “Pie Jesu” movement from the Requiem by Gabriel Faure.

Rest in peace, Barbara.

 


Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
6 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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