The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Irish pianist John O’Conor charms and excels in solo works by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and John Field. Ancora String Quartet plays Nielsen and Debussy Friday night. 

May 14, 2018
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ALERT: The Ancora String Quartet will close out its 17th season with a performance this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street. The program features the String Quartet No. 4 in F Major, Op. 44, by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. Tickets are available at the door and are $15, $12 for seniors, $5 for children. A reception follows the concert. For more information, go to: https://www.ancoraquartet.com

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 Isthmusand 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

Lovers of piano music were given a special treat this past weekend — a double-header, allowing access to two different dimensions of one of the important pianists of our time.

John O’Conor (below), the Irish pianist, appeared on Friday evening with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), presenting a stimulating performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then, the following evening, at the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, O’Conor gave a solo recital that showed the more personalized aspects of his art.

O’Conor concentrates particularly on the early Romantics in both his performing and recording activities, and from such concentrations was the recital program derived.

He began it with a reach back to an early favorite, Franz Joseph Haydn, in the Sonata No. 32 in B minor. In this work from 1776 O’Conor could find hints of the Romantic spirit to come — in a composer usually more identified with High Classicism.

The pianist was more fully in his own comfort zone, however, with the four Impromptus that make up the Op. 90 (D. 899) by Franz Schubert.

Dating from 1827, the composer’s last year, these are simply marvelous gems, and they made me realize that part of their delightfulness is what differentiates them from Schubert’s larger-scale piano works (sonatas,a fantasy, etc.).

The latter correspond to his efforts at music of grand scope and structure, as in the string quartets and symphonies, whereas the shorter piano pieces correspond to Schubert’s Lieder, or art songs, in their greater directness and intimacy. O’Conor played them with conviction and affection.

After the intermission came music by two composers with whom O’Conor has his most-established affinity. He has been the outstanding and crucial champion in the revival of interest in the piano music — both concertos and the pace-setting nocturnes — by John Field (1782-1837, below), the Irish pianist and composer who is recognized now as an important forerunner to Chopin.

Three of Field’s nocturnes (Nos. 5, 6, and 18) were presented, the last a kind of picture of party life in old Russia — where Field spent his later years — ending at the tolling of midday chimes. (You can hear John O’Conor play the lyrical and lullaby-like Nocturne No. 6 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven’s music is O’Conor’s other speciality. He has recorded all of the sonatas and the concertos, among other things. For this program, he performed the Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), a work nowadays cursed by the nickname given its first movement, “Moonlight.” He reminded us that the other two movements are the more fascinating and important ones.

As an encore, he suggested the John Field connection with one of Chopin’s own nocturnes.

Before each half of the program, the pianist gave his own comments, on both personal and analytical matters, and laced with his delightful Irish charm.

O’Conor performed on the amazing 1906 Chickering concert grand piano that Tim Farley has so lovingly restored. The post-recital conversation I had with O’Conor suggested that he had had too little time to adjust to the very remarkable individualities of the instrument. We may hope that he will return to Madison to fill out that acquaintance.

And we hope for more examples of the fruitful cooperation between the WCO and Farley’s in jointly bringing so fine a performer as this to the Madison scene.


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Classical music: Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird performs Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Go early and don’t miss the half-hour student “warm-up” show

February 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Of course the main event at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. is the performance by the four-time Grammy-winning group Eighth Blackbird (below), which specializes in performing contemporary composers and new music.

Here is a link with more information –  videos, sound samples, reviews, the program and tickets — about the concert by Eighth Blackbird, which you can hear giving a Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio (NPR) in the YouTube video at the bottom.

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/eighth-blackbird/

But if you can, go to the concert early.

That’s because The Ear wants to give a loud shout-out to the Wisconsin Union Theater for offering a pre-concert concert of student players at 7 p.m. (There is also a free pre-concert lecture by conductor Randal Swiggum at 6 p.m.)

The students play Bach, Vivaldi, folk music and more. They set the mood and get you ready, kind of like the warm-up band at a rock concert. They also restore your faith in the future of classical music.

This time the young performers will be the Suzuki Sonora Strings of Madison.

They are fun, impressive and inspiring. The Ear remembers hearing violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn praise the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the Suzuki method for starting her on her own career. (Hahn, far right in the front, is seen below with the students.)

And below is a statement provided by Esty Dinur,  the director of marketing for the Wisconsin Union Theater, about why they feature the students — an idea that The Ear praises highly because he thinks it expands and rewards the audience as well as the students.

Music education needs more of this kind of public visibility that doesn’t isolate the young learners and performers but instead integrates them into the mainstream classical music scene.

Here is the statement by Dinur:

“We have so far hosted two groups of young musicians, the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the group known previously as Madison Music Makers and currently as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) Music Makers.

“The Sonora Strings (below, seen from the balcony) performed before the concerts by Hilary Hahn in the 2015-2016 season and Joshua Bell in the 2016-2017 season. They will be performing again this Saturday ahead of the concert by Eighth Blackbird.

“WYSO Music Makers (below) performed before last season’s Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (and I learned that one of the LAGQ musicians played with them—from behind the shell!). We may add other young musicians in the future.

“We view them as the artists, teachers, audience members and advocates of the future, the people who will continue loving and spreading the love of classical and other music.

“As such, we’re excited to have the ability to provide them with experiences by world-class musicians in a world-class venue.

“It is always wonderful to see them working so hard on stage, being serious and intent and excited. It is also wonderful to see their parents and families derive such pleasure and justified pride for the accomplishments of their kids.

“We are also delighted to be able to present groups that are more diverse than the usual classical music crowd. The future promises to be significantly more diverse than the present. It’s nice to be able to bring that future onto our stage and our audience right now.

“Reactions from all quarters have been great. The kids, their teachers and their families are all very appreciative of the opportunity. So far, I’ve heard nothing but good feedback from the audience which seems to enjoy both watching and listening to the youngsters and to appreciate the intent behind their performances.

“Finally, these shows may be taxing at times for our staff but they’re happy to shoulder the challenges in order to participate in this important work.”


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


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