The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 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 FM. 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

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.

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Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and music by Bach. It also highlights principal violist in music by Berlioz

September 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers), with music director John DeMain conducting, opens its 92nd season with a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.

The season-opening concert also showcases the Madison Symphony Orchestra as an ensemble with no guest soloist. The MSO’s Principal Violist Chris Dozoryst (below) will solo in Hector Berlioz’sHarold in Italy.”

Also featured is Leopold Stokowski’s famous orchestral arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation will be honored with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony.

The concerts in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, are on Friday night, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Ticket information is below.

According to the MSO press release: “The concerts present the music of two composers who shared a deeply spiritual relationship with the Lutheran faith, and passion for music. It is said that Johann Sebastian Bach set faith to music, and Felix Mendelssohn clarified faith for all to hear.

MSO Music Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) chose to pair Bach and Mendelssohn specifically for this program.

“Both Bach (below top) and Mendelssohn (below bottom) were devout Lutherans, Mendelssohn having converted from Judaism when he was 12 years old,” DeMain says.

“I decided to open the season with Leopold Stokowski’s great transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ, and then give the first performance by the MSO of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, subtitled the Reformation. Indeed, this symphony quotes extensively from one of the greatest Christian hymns of all time — “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.””

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a transcription for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski (below) and became well-known after its inclusion in Disney’s film Fantasia. The piece was originally cut from the theatrical release of the film, but was later added back in a 1946 re-release and included Stokowski directing the orchestra at the beginning of the piece. (You can hear the original version for organ, with an unusual graphic display, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Hector Berlioz’sHarold in Italy” is considered an autobiographical vignette recounting the composer’s Italian experience. The piece is filled with youthful vitality, tinged with an appealing Romantic sensibility that Berlioz (below)  borrowed freely from literature, most specifically Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Playing the solo viola part is MSO’s Principal Violist Chris Dozoryst.

The 2017–18 season will mark Christopher Dozoryst’s 10th season as principal viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his orchestral duties, Chris also performs with the MSO’s HeartStrings Program as violist with the Rhapsodie Quartet. He also performs and records, working locally and regionally in Madison and Chicago. He has performed numerous engagements with well-known musicians including Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, and Smokey Robinson.

Originally commissioned in 1830 for a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, Mendelssohn honors Martin Luther (below) in his Symphony No. 5Reformation” by including in the finale the beloved hymn Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) that Luther had written while the Augsburg Confession was in session. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the establishment of the Lutheran Church.

One hour before each performance, Amy Hartsough (below), acting director of music at Bethel Lutheran Church, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/1.Sep17.html.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: 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 $12 or $18 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.

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

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison.com, Rosemarie and Fred Blancke, Capitol Lakes, The Gialamas Company, Inc., Marvin J. Levy, Nancy Mohs, and Peggy and Tom Pyle. Additional funding is provided by: DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C., Forte Research Systems and Nimblify, the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin, and the federal National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: Which are the most famous and most popular string quartets? And which ones are your favorites?

May 26, 2016
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Does The Ear ever love chamber music!

And it has been a good few days for him and for other Madison fans of string quartets.

On Saturday night, The Ear heard the Ancora String Quartet (below) in outstanding performances of the “Dissonance” Quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the late String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, “Rosamunde,” by Franz Schubert.

Ancora CR Barry Lewis

Then on Monday night, the Ear heard the terrific Rhapsodie Quartet (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made up of players in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, perform the “American” String Quartet by Antonin Dvorak followed by the sublime and profound Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert. UW-Madison and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp (below bottom) sat in as the extra cellist.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

Parry Karp

At the Ancora concert, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, made the case that Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet is well known for its apt nickname and is probably the best known or most popular of Mozart’s string quartets.

That got The Ear to thinking:

What are the most well-known and most popular string quartets?

And which string quartets are your favorites that you would recommend to other chamber music fans?

The Ear drew up a list of candidates of the first honor of being well-known.

He suspects that the “Emperor” Quartet — with its famous and infamous slow movement theme that was turned from an homage to the Austrian emperor into an anthem for Nazi Germany — by Franz Joseph Haydn, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet of Schubert and the “American” Quartet of Dvorak all rival or surpass the public reputation of the Mozart’s “Dissonance,” although that one is certainly and deservedly famous to the general public.

As to The Ear’s favorite quartets: The Ear is especially partial to the six early Op. 18 string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), which often take a back seat to the same composer’s middle quartets and late quartets. But of the famous last ones, The Ear loves the very last one, Op. 135, with its return to classical structure and clarity.

Beethoven big

He also loves all of the Op. 76 string quartets by Haydn (below top) and is especially partial to the “Sunrise” and the “Quinten” or “Fifths” quartets. He also loves Haydn’s earlier Op. 20 “Sun” quartets; and all six string quartets that Mozart (below bottom) composed for and dedicated to Haydn, generally considered the father or the modern string quartet who also played string quartets  with himself on violin and Mozart on viola.

Haydn

Mozart old 1782

The Ear likes Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” well enough, but he is always blown away by Schubert’s last quartet in G major, which was used as a soundtrack in Woody Allen’s great movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

He also loves the lyrical quartets on Dvorak (below), especially the Op. 51 “Slavonic” as well as the “American.” (You can hear the opening of the “Slavonic” String Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

dvorak

As for Johannes Brahms, The Ear prefers the string quintets and string sextets to the string quartets.

Francophile that he is, The Ear also loves the single string quartets by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Among other modern string quartets, he loves the third and fifth of Bela Bartok, the second one by Sergei Prokofiev and the eight and 11th by Dmitri Shostakovich. He also adds the String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima” by Philip Glass.

Well, that’s enough for today and for this post.

What string quartet do you think is the most famous or most popular?

And which string quartets are your favorites?

Leave word, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., SoundWaves moves to Mills Hall to present a FREE and PUBLIC discussion and performance of inventions and music from the 1920s.

October 20, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), a professor of horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and a friend of The Ear, writes:

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

I’m not sure if you know about my FREE and PUBLIC series SoundWaves. But I’d like to tell you about it because we have our first-ever presentation in the UW-Madison School of Music next week. It is part of the statewide Wisconsin Science Festival.

The basic idea is this: I choose a theme and get four scientists from different disciplines (or sometimes academics from the humanities) to explore the theme — for the layman — in short 15-minute talks.

I then give a short talk about the theme as it relates to music.

Then, there’s a related music performance.

To make this concrete for you, our program coming up is about The Roaring ’20s.

Now in its fourth year, the SoundWaves series is underwritten by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, below with founder Prof. Harry Steenbock), which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it seemed fitting to explore the decade of its creation for our first event of the year.

Harry Steenbock WARF bldg

Accordingly, we will have a historian of science speaking about Vitamin D, which was discovered and synthesized by Steenbock,  explaining things like “What the hell IS a vitamin, anyway?”

Vitamin D

Then, a dermatologist will talk about bandaids (invented in 1920). Kids love them, but do they work? How? Why does someone invent a bandaid?

bandaid

Next, a law professor will discuss the lie detector, also invented in 1920. We see them on cop shows, but do they work? Is their evidence admissible in court? How do they work?

lie detector

Then, an industrial engineer will speak about automotive breakthroughs from the 1920s that have shaped our driving experience. Power steering, the traffic light, the car radio (invented by Motorola, hence the “motor” in the company name) — all were invented in the 1920s and all have had a broad impact on cars and driving today.

traffic light

Then I’ll be talking about music of the 1920s. I’m particularly interested in what was then the recent invention of the 12-tone system by Arnold Schoenberg (below). If you are a composer, how on earth do you respond to that? Do you reject it, and if so, what do you do instead? How is the musical aesthetic reshaped by such a radical (and difficult to listen to) idea?

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

At the end, there will be a performance of the String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” based on the short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy) by Czech composer Leos Janacek (below top), written in 1923, played by the Rhapsodie String Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made of Madison Symphony Orchestra players including Suzanne Beia, our own second violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leos Janacek

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

We’ve been getting around 175 people for our programs at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, including lots of people who come back over and over.

For me, doing this series is hugely stimulating — being able to collaborate across traditionally rigid academic boundaries is one of the reasons I was excited to come to Madison.

Here are the specifics:

Date: This Saturday, Oct. 24, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Speakers and performers:

Kevin Walters, WARF historian-in-residence

Klint Peebles, Department of Dermatology

Keith Findley, UW Law School

John Lee, Department of Industrial Engineering

Daniel Grabois, School of Music and SoundWaves curator

Rhapsodie String Quartet

For more information, visit:

http://discovery.wisc.edu/home/town-center/programs–events/soundwaves/soundwaves.cmsx

Sales pitch over!

Hope to see you there.

 


Classical music Q&A: What makes Haydn, Haydn and Mozart, Mozart? Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra maestro Andrew Sewell, discusses the composers and music he will perform this Friday night at the Overture Center. Plus, at noon on Saturday the Madison Bach Musicians will perform a FREE concert of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Corelli at Grace Episcopal Church.

February 20, 2014
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ALERT: This Saturday from noon to 1 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church (below), downtown on the Capitol Square at 116 West Washington Avenue, will present a FREE early music concert of  works by J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti and Handel by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of keyboardist Trevor Stephenson.

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform a concert of Haydn, Mozart and Vittorio Giannini.

WCO lobby

The concert will open with a modern Concerto Grosso by the 20th-century Italian composer Vittorio Giannini, another of the WCO discoveries of neglected or unknown composers. Then the young and critically acclaimed cellist Joshua Roman will join the WCO (below) in Franz Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major. The concert will close with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s masterful Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter.”

Tickets are $15-$67 and can be obtained from the Overture Center box office 212 State Street or by calling (608_ 258-4141. You can also visit http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/70/event-info/ http://ev12.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList?groupCode=WCO_E&linkID=overture&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode=

Haydn and Mozart (below, left is Haydn and right is Mozart) are often mentioned in the same breath and the same sentences if they were identical or fraternal twins — much like Beethoven and Schubert, or Ravel and Debussy.

Haydn (left) and Mozart (right)

So The Ear really likes this kind of contrast-and-compare program that helps to underline the similarities and especially the differences between two composers who were contemporaries and sometimes even colleagues who learned from each other and played in the same string quartet. In that spirit, I recently asked WCO’s longtime music director Andrew Sewell (below) to discuss the program and especially the Classical-era composers whom he is so convincing at interpreting:

andrewsewell

Haydn and Mozart are often lumped in together as Classical-era contemporaries. What makes each composer so distinctive? What makes Mozart, Mozart and Haydn, Haydn?

It’s a question of style. They both used classical conventions and were each experimenting constantly, seeing what worked for their audiences. Haydn (below top) was for the longest time confined to writing for a specific audience, at the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt as opposed to Mozart (below bottom), who moved from Salzburg to Vienna, and spent time in Paris as well.

The geographical demands of each musical center framed, I think, the level of sophistication being determined by their audience and who they were writing for. Mozart’s symphonies written for the Parisian orchestra and audience had more virtuosity factored in. They had clarinets, and a slightly bigger wind section. They used “flash and sparkle.”

Haydn’s 12 symphonies commissioned by Salomon for the London Salon Concerts were more refined and experimental than before. Again the orchestra was larger, and he had top quality musicians at his disposal, achieving a greater level of virtuosity.

Haydn

mozart big

What can you tell us about the Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below)? How did you find out about it and why are you attracted to him and to that work? Why do you think it is so little known and rarely performed?

I first conducted a work by Giannini with a high school orchestra in Salem, Oregon in 2012 while guest conducting the Salem Chamber Orchestra. It included several school visits as part of a week-long residency. The work was Prelude and Fugue for String Orchestra. I kept a copy of the score, and was both enchanted and curious about other works by this composer.

He was born in Philadelphia, was a prodigy on the violin and spent time studying at the Milan Conservatory and the Juilliard School. He founded the North Carolina School of the Arts, as a “Juilliard of the South,” in 1965.  His music is both Romantic and Expressionist. He wrote five symphonies and five concertos and several radio operas in the 1930s. His father was an opera singer as were two of his sisters, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera.

After conducting the Prelude and Fugue, I was curious about his Concerto Grosso. It is Baroque in form as the title suggests but stylistically would remind one of Hindemith.  Written in 1955, it reflects the current trends at the time that took music to more strident, poignant and angular sonorities.

I hope performing his music will rekindle interest in his music, and I may program his Prelude and Fugue at a later date. Why did I choose this piece? Because in contrast to the very familiar names of Haydn and Mozart, this presents the other extreme.  In fact, with a name like Vittorio Giannini, one is apt to mistake him as a period equivalent to say, Handel or Vivaldi, and the composition is entitled Concerto Grosso!

Vittorio Giannini

What would you like to say about the young cello soloist Joshua Roman and how he came to your attention to book for the WCO?

I first heard Joshua Roman perform with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra in November of 2012, and was very impressed by him. He played the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and afterwards I asked him what he would like to play if he were to return to perform with the WCO? He chose Haydn. His pedigree is such that at the age of 22, he won the Principal Cello position with the Seattle Symphony. He did this for two years before embarking on a successful solo career.  He is a very engaging performer who makes the cello literally “sing” when he plays.

Joshua Roman 3

Do you have any other programming plans in the works like this Haydn-Mozart program to “compare and contrast” major composers -– say with, perhaps, Beethoven and Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, Debussy and Ravel?

I think one is always putting together programs that compare and contrast each other. Whether consciously or otherwise, it’s what fits together in a balanced program. This Haydn-Mozart program wasn’t a conscious “compare and contrast” decision.  It really stems from a more fundamental question of programming. Once you establish the soloist’s repertoire, it’s a matter of putting a program together within the context of the five-concert Masterworks season.

But you do raise a good point. I chose Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, as it is his last and, in my opinion, greatest symphony. The last movement (below in a popular YouTube video with more than 1 million hits) is incredible, particularly as it contains a fugue, the subject of which is introduced in a very subliminal way at end of the trio of the previous movement. It is pure genius and so joyful. In contrast, the genteel nature of the last movement of the Haydn Cello Concerto makes that piece seem jaunty in comparison. Yet they are both highly sophisticated pieces.

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