The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: As Pride month comes to an end, let us proudly recall LGBTQ classical composers and musicians. Plus, you hear a concert of queer composers and performers

June 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, this whole past month, the Rainbow flags (below) have been flying openly and high.

We saw all sorts of major Pride parades for LGBTQ rights as well as the 50th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that eventually gave birth  to a worldwide movement to ensure that queer people receive the human rights they deserve.

Since today is the last day of June, of Pride month, it seems fitting to recall the many LGBTQ composers and performers in classical music.

The gay rights movement has opened the closet doors not only of individual lives today but also of historical figures.

So here are several lists that may teach you something new about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer musicians.

Some of the calls seem iffy, unconvincing or overstated. Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, for example, lived when homoerotic friendship did not necessarily mean a queer sexual identity. But one way or the other, historical proof and documentation can be hard to come by. And clearly there is much more to know about the past.

But take a look. At least you will see how scholars are undertaking new research and often undermining the heterosexual assumption that has wrapped so many historical and even contemporary figures in wrong or mistaken gender identity.

And if you find someone missing, please leave the name and appropriate information in the comment section.

Freedom, acceptance and respect are not zero-sum games in which one person or group can win only if another one loses. There is enough of each to go around. All can celebrate pride.

So enjoy the information, whether it is new or not, and the respect it should inspire for the central role of LGBTQ people in the arts both past and present.

Here is a pretty extensive and comprehensive list, in alphabetical order, from Wikipedia of LGBT composers, both living and dead. It includes Chester Biscardi (below) who did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pauline Oliveros who did a residency at the UW-Madison several years ago. You don’t have to click on each name. Just hover the cursor arrow over the name and you will see a photo and biographical blurb.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_composers

And here is a list, also in alphabetical order and also from Wikipedia, of LGBT musicians and performers, not all of them classical. It works by clicking on sub-categories that include nationality – though one wonders if musicians from extremely homophobic countries and cultures are included.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_musicians

Here is a more selective list from The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine, of 18 queer composers — including Corelli — who made history and you should know about:

https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2017/2/08/18-queer-composers-who-made-music-history?pg=full

And here is a similarly selective list from radio station WFMT in Chicago of 15 LGBT composers — including Handel and Lully — you should know about:

https://www.wfmt.com/2015/06/25/15-queer-composers-know/

And in the YouTube video at the bottom is a Pride concert — 1 hour and 43 minutes long — recently held in New York City at the Greene Space, and hosted and recorded by radio stations WQXR and WNYC.

It features music by queer composers and performances by queer artists. Metropolitan Opera star Anthony Roth Constanzo performs. Also playing are pianists Steven Blier and Sara Davis Buechner, who have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, respectively. The New York Gay Men’s Chorus sings. The Ear found the concert timely and moving.

If you have questions, comments or additional names, please do leave word in the comment section.

Happy Pride!

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American composer John Harbison are spotlighted this coming weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 11, 2019
9 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Internationally recognized and Grammy Award-winning Canadian violinist James Ehnes returns to Overture Hall this weekend to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Greg Anderson).

The program opens with a performance of American composer John Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords, and closes with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

This program is a continuation of MSO music director John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets information is below.

“Mussorgsky’s masterpiece explores the colors of the orchestra — the correlation of an artist’s visual medium through the colors of sound and music. And its finale The Great Gate of Kiev (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), is one of classical music’s greatest hits,” says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

DeMain adds: “James Ehnes (below, in a  photo by Benjamin Ealovega) is a violinist who is completely to my taste. With an absolutely gorgeous sound and consummate technique, he goes to the heart of the music. He will approach the Brahms violin concerto as a violinist’s violinist, adored by the public, by his colleagues and by me for the integrity in his playing.”

On this Friday afternoon, Feb. 15, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, Ehnes will give a free and public master class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. 

DeMain continues: “We celebrate the 80th birthday of the internationally renowned — and Madison resident — composer John Harbison (below) with the first performance by the MSO of his delightful composition, The Most Often Used Chords.”

Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords is a satirical piece of “anti-art art,” or “found object,” art. According to the composer, the found object that inspired this symphony (originally titled Fli Accordi Piu Usati) were the pre-printed “Fundamentals of Music” pages that he noticed in an Italian music-writing notebook. The work was originally composed in 1992 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Written in 1878, the Brahms Violin Concerto was dedicated to his friend Joseph Joachim and premiered in 1879 in Leipzig, with Joachim soloing and Brahms (below) conducting.

An equal partnership between soloist and ensemble is on full display in this concerto; it is not a piece in which the orchestra serves as mere backdrop. Rather, the violinist and orchestra are a team, collaborating and interacting to recount an elegant and nuanced musical drama.

Originally written as a piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky was composed as a memorial to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873. The suite consists of 10 movements — each a musical depiction of one of 10 paintings by Hartmann. These movements are interspersed with a recurring promenade theme that represents a visitor strolling through the exhibition.

The arrangement by Maurice Ravel (below), produced in 1922, represents a virtuoso effort by a master composer. His instrumental colors — a trumpet solo for the opening Promenade, dark woodwind tones, the piccolo and high strings for the children’s “chicks in shells” — are widely admired. The influence of Ravel’s version may often be discerned in subsequent versions of the suite.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts, written retired MSO trombonist J. Michael Allsen, are available online: http://bit.ly/feb2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ehnesthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

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

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club, BMO Harris Bank, Boardman and Clark LLP, Capitol Lakes, Dr. Robert and Linda Graebner, Marvin J. Levy, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom.

Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, and by the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Kyle Knox is the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras

April 29, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Kyle Knox has been named the new music director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

Knox (below), who was a clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras and then studied conducting as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will assume his duties on July 1.

Knox, will also conduct the Youth Orchestra (below), the most senior performing group in WYSO.

The move is likely to please many disappointed fans of Knox, who has won praise for conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the University Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra but who was passed over as the successor to UW Professor James Smith (below) when Smith retired.

Smith was also the acclaimed longtime music director of WYSO. For the past year Randal Swiggum (below), the music director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has been the interim music director of WYSO and conductor of the Youth Orchestra.

In the latest WYSO newsletter, Knox, a longtime Madison resident who is married to Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, writes:

“I am so looking forward to my first year as Music Director at WYSO, beginning July 1, 1918. Even in the short time I’ve spent at Saturday rehearsals, it is clear this is a first-rate youth orchestra program. Top to bottom, each ensemble offers a special opportunity for music-making and artistic growth. I am lucky to be joining such a vibrant artistic and administrative team.

“Our 2018-2019 season will feature great orchestral and chamber works from all eras. In addition to our stellar roster of sectional and chamber music coaches, the students may have the opportunity to work with world-class guest artists and soloists. It should be an exciting season of music-making.

“As a teenager, music had a transformational effect on my life. I owe much of my personal and professional development to my time playing in youth orchestra and the many wonderful teachers I met as a result.

“Even now, almost 20 years later, the relationships I formed during those years continue to be among the most meaningful in my life. Something about sharing a stage with other people, working toward a collective goal, leaves a special imprint on my mind. (Below is Kyle Knox conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra.)

“For the students, I hope that your time at WYSO is enriching and helps add meaning to your lives, both as artists and people. It is an honor for me to be a small part of that journey.

“I look forward to getting to know everyone in the WYSO family over the coming months.”

For more background and information about WYSO, which is more than 50 years old and has reached thousands of students from more than a hundred communities in south-central Wisconsin, and about the upcoming spring concerts in May, go to:

https://www.wysomusic.org


Classical music: Piano and viola duo Vis-à-Vis gives a FREE concert this Saturday at noon as part of Grace Presents

January 11, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

For a while, the acclaimed FREE community outreach concert series Grace Presents had folded.

But now it is back.

Grace Presents’ new coordinator Yanzel Rivera, who is a graduate student at the UW-Madison Mead-Witter School of Music, has sent the following information to post:

“Grace Presents, which offers free monthly concerts on the Capitol Square, will feature the Vis-À-Vis duo (below) of violist Brandin Kreuder and pianist Craig Jordan.

“The one-hour concert, called “Clarke and Brahms” will take place this Saturday, Jan. 13, at noon at the Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, across from the Capitol Square.

The program features: Four Pieces by British composer Frank Bridge, (1879-1941); a Sonata by British composer Rebecca Clarke, (1886-1979, below top); “Un regard dans le vide” or ‘A Look Into the Void” (2017) by American composer Christian Messier (b. 1995, below bottom), who studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin;  and the Sonata in F Minor by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

ABOUT THE PERFORMERS

“Duo Vis-À-Vis aims to bring engaging and explorative chamber music performances to communities across the country and share their love for musical collaboration and expression.

“The duo is comprised of violinist/violist Brandin Kreuder, and pianist, Craig Jordan. Brandin is a native of Burlington, Wisconsin, and a 2016 graduate of Lawrence University and Conservatory (below) who holds a B.A. in Studio Art and a B.M. in Violin Performance.

“Brandin is currently in his second year of his Master of Music degree studying viola with virtuoso violist Jodi Levitz at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

“Jordan, from Ames, Iowa, is a junior at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music pursuing his Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance under the teaching of Catherine Kautsky, with an emphasis on Collaborative Piano. He is currently studying this fall semester at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in the Netherlands with Marta Liébana Martínez.

“Since its debut in spring 2016, duo Vis-A-Vis has performed three recital tours in Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and Massachusetts. Their recent tour “Reminiscence” brought the duo to their widest variety of performance locations yet. One of these performances also served as the beginning of a new chamber music series hosted by the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth, Mass.

(You can hear Duo Vis-à-Vis (below) perform the Violin Sonata by Cesar Franck in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

ABOUT GRACE PRESENTS

Grace Presents features a diverse range of music, including everything from classical and folk to jazz and bluegrass. The performers include nationally recognized musicians and exceptional young talent from Madison and beyond.

The mission is to create a premier concert series that everyone in the Madison community can enjoy. Each month it welcomes a diverse audience to its concerts, including Madison residents, students, farmers’ market shoppers, tourists, and people who are homeless.

The organizers invite audiences to bring a lunch to enjoy inside the church during our concerts.

A celebrated historic landmark established in 1839, Grace Episcopal Church (below top and bottom) is the oldest church in Madison. Known for its grand Gothic architecture and distinctive red doors, the church features hand-carved woodwork, brilliant stained glass windows–including a Tiffany window–and a cathedral organ.

Grace Presents is supported in part by a grant from Dane Arts, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

The series also relies on donations from sponsors and free-will offerings at each concert.


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