The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Personal experience, artistic excellence and historical importance drew pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel into planning next year’s centennial season at the Wisconsin Union Theater

March 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Now that Spring Break is over and subscription tickets are available for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s special centennial celebration next season – which includes superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax — here is an email interview that pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), the wife-and-husband consultants and planners of that season, granted to The Ear.

For more about the season and tickets, go to two websites:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/03/04/classical-music-superstar-soprano-renee-fleming-and-pianist-emanuel-ax-headline-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-wisconsin-union-theaters-concert-series-next-season/

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Could you briefly introduce yourselves to readers and tell them both your past and current activities?

We have been performing on the world’s many concert stages for almost our entire lives. In addition to our careers as concert performers, we serve as the founding Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival in Silicon Valley, as well as the Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) in New York City.

Our main responsibility as concert performers is to give the best concerts we possibly can, and we are constantly striving to achieve the highest possible level of artistry in our performances.

In our roles as artistic directors, our responsibilities lie in the programming, casting and designing of concert series and chamber music projects for our organizations. At CMS, this includes designing the programming for our seven different satellite series around the country, plus international partnerships in Taiwan, Korea and Europe.

We are also involved in chamber music programming endeavors beyond Music@Menlo and CMS, having just completed a first-ever chamber music residency at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida. Furthermore, Wu Han is serving as Artistic Advisor to Wolf Trap Chamber Music at the Barns, which entails thematically programming eight concerts per season for the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons.

As artistic directors, we spend much of our time putting ourselves in the shoes of our listeners, measuring their experience and receptivity to chamber music of all periods and styles, and putting together the best programs and artists who will move our audiences forward into ever-increasing engagement with and love of the art.

David was the cellist of the Emerson String Quartet for 34 seasons, and we have been performing together as a duo for about 35 years, and continue to do so as one of our main performance activities.

What are your personal relationships to the Wisconsin Union Theater, and what do you think of it as a concert venue?

Our engagement with the Wisconsin Union Theater goes back quite a few years, but certainly not even close to the beginning of the Theater’s distinguished history. For any performer setting foot on its stage, there’s a sense of slipping into an ongoing tradition of artistic excellence that makes us feel both privileged and obligated to do our best.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and its story in American cultural life is larger than any of us; only the music we play rises above and beyond it all, and as performers, our lucky moment is to represent that incredible literature in a venue as significant and storied as the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Below is the theater’s main venue, the renovated and restored Shannon Hall.)

Why did you agree to be artistic advisors and artists-in-residence for the centennial season? Did your personal experiences in Madison play a role in that decision?

As seasoned artists, we deeply admire and respect the very special place in the classical music tradition and history that the Wisconsin Union Theater (below) inhabits, and the invitation to participate in the Theater’s 100th anniversary was an honor for us to receive. Our experiences playing on this distinguished stage and forming a relationship with the local audience have made our pursuit of the common goal of artistic excellence in the centennial season incredibly fulfilling.

Of course, having performed there in the past gave us a hint of confidence through our familiarity with the place, but we must say we have learned perhaps double what we knew originally through this planning process. Without interfering, but at the same time sharing our uncompromised commitment to artistic excellence, we hope that our presence during the process has been useful, and we know that we look so much forward to seeing the careful thought and hard work of all involved come to fruition.

Is there a unifying or guiding principle to the season you have put together?

The guiding principle behind our work on this historic season is artistic excellence, which in our opinion is what most inspires audiences and best serves the art form of classical music.

Our area of expertise is chamber music, and, as we wanted to share the best of what we can do with the Theater, our focus has been on ensuring that the chamber music offerings during this historic season, and hopefully beyond, reflect the best of the world of chamber music.

In our suggestions, we looked for variety of instrumentations, of composers and periods—in other words, giving as much of an overview of the art as we could within a season.

What would you like the public to know about the Wisconsin Union Theater and the upcoming centennial season?

In the Theater’s centennial season, the audience will have the opportunity to savor a variety of different genres of chamber music, from solo piano to vocal music, as well as a sampling of the very best works of the chamber music canon. Between these various genres, the great composers left a wealth of chamber music that could sustain the art form on its own, but that’s still only the tip of the iceberg.

Our chamber music offerings will include the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has a long history of performing for the Madison audience. Their December program will include celebrated cornerstones of the piano trio repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio and Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. (You can hear the opening of the Archduke Trio in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Both pieces have achieved monumental historical significance through their influence in propelling the art form forward from the Classical period to the Romantic period.

The Escher String Quartet performance in January represents the best of the next generation of young string quartets. Their program includes a quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn—the father of the string quartet genre—and the sole quartet of none other than revered violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who performed in the Wisconsin Union Theater nearly a century ago. Kreisler set foot on the Theater’s stage numerous times, and his rarely heard string quartet nods to the Theater’s long, distinguished history. David will join the Escher Quartet for the beloved Schubert Cello Quintet, which is the “desert island” must-have piece for many music lovers.

Furthermore, in March, we will bring two of the most fantastic musicians in the world to join us for a program of Antonin Dvorak, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms. This multigenerational cast of musicians includes the incredible young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann (below top, in a photo by Matt Dine) as well as the most important violist of our generation, Paul Neubauer (below bottom). This program is all about the passing down of the baton and the continuous investment in the next generations of artists: Brahms was the one who discovered Dvorak, and Dvorak in turn discovered Suk.


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Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet opens its new season in top form

September 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night in Mills Hall, in an all-masterpiece program that featured Classical, Romantic and Modernist works, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) opened its new season .

And it did so in top form. The Ear came away with one thought: You just can’t find better chamber music in Madison — and it’s free!

In the “Sunrise” Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Pro Arte exhibited the ideal Classical style with its balance, voicing and clarity.

The sunrise motif proved utterly convincing and evocative. Particularly noteworthy was how the group highlighted the dissonances in the Classical era’s slow movement. (Hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The interpretation offered more proof that when the work is consonant, you play for the dissonance; and when the work is dissonant, you play for the consonance.

In the short, non-stop Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Ear was impressed by how the Pro Arte teased out the remnants of late Russian Romanticism that creep into the mostly modernist works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Also remarkable was how the Pro Arte highlighted the structure and counterpoint that Shostakovich, a devotee of Bach, brought to his modernism. This seemed a softer and more lyrical Shostakovich, less strident or percussive, than you often hear. And the approach worked beautifully to engage the listener.

And then came the grand finale done grandly: the late Beethoven Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The quartet unraveled the often perplexing and thick texture; the epic length; and the forward-looking compositional methods.

The Pro Arte used a low-key and restrained approach that only highlighted the heart-rending lyricism of the “Heiliger Dangesang,” or Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving, that the aging Beethoven composed when he had recovered from what he thought might be a fatal illness.

How fitting! The perfectly planned program started with one dawn by the teacher and ended with another dawn by the student.

Madison keeps getting more new chamber music groups, all very accomplished and all very good. But the Pro Arte Quartet — now in its 106th season of existence and its 78th season in residence at the UW-Madison — is still tops. As one fan said in near disbelief, “That concert was out of this world.” He wasn’t alone as the performance drew a prolonged standing ovation and loud bravos from the two-thirds house.

When it comes to chamber music, you just can’t do better than the Pro Arte Quartet. It’s that simple. With such quality and affordability, the Pro Arte should always be playing to a full house.

The Pro Arte Quartet will repeat the same program on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, at 12:30 p.m. for “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.” Admission to the Brittingham Gallery 3 performance space is free, and the concert will be streamed live. Go here for details and a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-10-7-18/

And the dates and times — without programs — of future Pro Arte Quartet concerts can be found here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/


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Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet delivers a perfect program of superb music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert

February 5, 2018
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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.

By John W. Barker

While snow may have restricted the audience attending the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) on Saturday night, those who came were amply rewarded with a virtually perfect program of superb music.

The program brought together three Austrian works, two by those Classical-era titans, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the third by the Austrian early Romantic Franz Schubert.

The combination of the first two was particularly stimulating, an opportunity to reckon how different from each other were these composers who are so often bracketed together.

The E-flat Quartet is No. 3 in the Op. 50 set that some commentators have viewed as the response by Haydn (below) to the set of six quartets that Mozart had recently published in Haydn’s honor.

Deliberately, Haydn chose to avoid matching Mozart’s lyricism and rich imagination, turning instead to statements of strength in austere textures.

Composed in 1790, a year before his death and only three years after the Haydn work, the Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, by Mozart (below) was his penultimate quartet, part of a series to be written for the King of Prussia who played the cello, which is featured prominently in the quartet.

Here we have a Mozartian style that is expansive and exploratory. Amid music of great lyric beauty and even vivacity, we have a Menuetto third movement whose Trio, or midsection, is remarkably dark and ambiguous. (You can hear a period-instrument performance of the third movement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

The Pro Arte players brought out the individuality of the two different styles quite beautifully. To my ears, the viola lines were delivered with notable strength and color by Sally Chisholm.

The final work, and the longest, was one of Schubert’s amazing late quartets. The No. 13 in A minor, D. 804), from 1824 is known as the “Rosamunde” Quartet because the second movement is the elaboration by Schubert (below) of the lovely melody in the well-known interlude in his incidental music for the play of that title.

Despite a somewhat moody first movement, the work as a whole is suffused with Schubert’s very special, very personal lyricism. Analyses of it can be instructive, but ultimately this remains music for the soul, not just the brain, I think.

The Pro Arte understands that well, and gave a generous demonstration of its beauties.

It proved such a wonderful concert, for which we can only give warm thanks to the UW-Madison’s Mead-Witter School of Music where the Pro Arte Quartet has been an artist-in-residence since World War II.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Brass Quintet performs a FREE concert Thursday night on the UW-Madison campus.

October 21, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Brass Quintet, which is marking its 43rd anniversary this season, will give a FREE and PUBLIC performance this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The program includes: the Canzona per sonare No. 2 by the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554-1612); “In the Zone” by UW-Madison alumnus Andrew Rindfleisch (b. 1963); the Brass Quintet by Ira Taxin (b. 1950); and Rounds and Dances for Brass Quintet by Jan Bach (b. 1937)

Members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet are (below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, left to right): Mark Hetzler, trombone; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Curry, tuba; John Aley, trumpet; Daniel Grabois, horn. 

Wisconsin Brass Quintet

Here is some background about the Wisconsin Brass Quintet:

Founded in 1972, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet is a faculty ensemble-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

The quintet’s musical expertise has been acknowledged by Verne Reynolds, Jan Bach, Karel Husa, John Harbison, Daron Hagen and many other composers.

In addition to performing with the WBQ, the players have also been members of the American Brass Quintet, Empire Brass Quintet and Meridian Arts Ensemble. Quintet members John Stevens and Daniel Grabois and former member Douglas Hill have also composed many works for the group.

With extensive performances throughout the Midwest and nationally, including appearances at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Concert Hall, the quintet’s educational programs and master classes have been presented in such prestigious settings as The Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music.

The quintet performs annual live radio broadcast concerts on Wisconsin Public Radio. Its three CD recordings, on the Summit, Mark and Crystal labels, feature music by John Stevens, Douglas Hill, Verne Reynolds, Daron Hagen, John Harbison and Enrique Crespo.

An earlier LP recording features the only recording of Jan Bach’s “Rounds and Dances” and Hilmar Luckhardt’s “Brass Quintet.” Each of these works was composed for the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, in keeping with the WBQ’s commitment to commissioning and performing new music of the 20th and 21st centuries. (You can hear the Wisconsin Brass Quintet perform a commissioned work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Barry Kilpatrick writes for the American Record Guide: “I’ve reviewed over 250 brass recordings in the past five years, and this is one of the very best. The WBQ is a remarkable ensemble that plays with more reckless abandon, warmth, stylistic variety and interpretive interest than almost any quintet in memory.”


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