The Well-Tempered Ear

New York Times critics name their Top 10 online concerts in April. They start today with a Good Friday performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion.”

April 2, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

More people are getting COVID vaccines, but concerts will remain virtual and online for quite a while yet, especially if a fourth wave or another spike hits the U.S. and the world.

So here, once again, are the Top 10 online choices for April listening picked by the classical music critics for The New York Times.

This being the weekend of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it couldn’t be more timely.

The first choice, which starts steaming today, is perfect for both occasions. It is a production of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion.” It is conducted by THE Bach performers – the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque soloists, all conducted by Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner.

Gardiner has recorded and toured the world with Bach’s cantatas and oratorios. He also wrote the well criticially acclaimed book “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.”

If you like Bach, you are in for some good listening this month. Pianist Jeremy Denk (below) will also perform the complete first book of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” at the end of the month. (You can hear the famous first prelude, popular with students and amateurs  but also used in a sacred setting by Schubert and Gounod, in the Youtube video at the bottom.)

You may recall that Denk performed Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” several years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater, which also hosted an online concert by Denk this season in a program of Brahms and the two Schumann’s – Robert and Clara. 

You can also hear chamber music, including a concert of contemporary composers by the Attacca Quartet.

And there is a period performance of “Pelleas and Melisande” by Debussy (below). It will attempt to recreate how the opera score sounded when it was first performed in 1902.

The ever-inventive music educator Leon Botstein will conduct a concert of music by Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and Tania Leon. 

German baritone Benjamin Appl will perform the famous song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) by Franz Schubert. It streams from the faned Wigmore Hall in London.

One of the most intriguing choices is the score to Philip Glass’ “pocket opera” based on the short story “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka.

The well-known conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below), who is also the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony after Michael Tilson Thomas retired last year. Much of the program is Salonen’s own music, along with Minimalist music by Steve Reich and Terry Riley.

There are also “Monumental Trios, featuring piano trios by Brahms and Beethoven, performed by members of the Chamber Music of Society.

And of course there will be a world premiere of the Symphony No. 2 by Huw Watkins  (below is his Wikipedia bio with a photo in case you haven’t heard of the composer).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huw_Watkins

For more details, here is a link to the Times story. Click on the headline. It includes some commentary by the critic who chose each piece. You will also find links to the artist and organization plus the debut date and how long the post will remain available. Please note that all times are Eastern Daylight Time.

Do you have other concerts you recommend for streaming – local, regional, national or international?

Please leave your selection in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy listening.


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Just Bach will release its FREE online concert for this month on this Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 8 a.m. The program features a virtuosic violin and harpsichord sonata and a sing-along cantata chorale

February 16, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from violist Marika Fischer Hoyt of the group Just Bach:

February greetings from Just Bach!

We hope this finds you all well, keeping warm and ready to experience more of the timeless beauty of Bach’s music.

As regular performers on Luther Memorial Church’s weekly “Music at Midday” concert series (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis), Just Bach presents half-hour programs on the third Wednesday of each month. This semester’s dates: Jan. 20, Feb. 17, March 17, April 21 and May 19.

Our concerts are FREE and online indefinitely once they are released at 8 a.m. They are posted on the Just Bach and Luther Memorial YouTube Channels.  

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcyVFEVsJwklHAx9riqSkXQ

Concert viewers are invited to a 30-minute live Zoom Post-concert reception on this Wednesday, Feb. 17,at 7:30 p.m. Those who would like to join us and chat with the performers can follow this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84516271617?pwd=THR5bTFwRkh0VTBIWDlzR2VxSGIrUT09

Viewing the concerts is free, but we ask those who are able, to help us pay our musicians with a tax-deductible donation. https://justbach.org/donate/

Our February concert opens with Just Bach co-founder, Grammy-nominated soprano and UW-Madison graduate student Sarah Brailey (below), providing welcoming remarks.

The program offers the sonata for that belongs to a set of six that Bach wrote for violin and harpsichord. 

Violinist Kangwon Kim (below left, in a photo by Dave Parminter) and harpsichordist Professor John Chappell Stowe (below right), of the UW-Madison, join forces for a performance of the Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 1019. 

This five-movement work includes an extraordinary middle movement for solo keyboard — a jaunty Allegro in E minor that has more attitude than any Allegro has a right to!

Sarah closes the program with the final chorale from Cantata 159, “Jesu, deine Passion ist mir lauter Freude” (Jesus, Your passion is pure joy to me), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

We encourage viewers to sing along by following the chorale sheet music, which will be displayed on the computer screen as Sarah sings and Professor Stowe accompanies on the organ.

The videographer is Dave Parminter.

For more information, contact Marika Fischer Hoyt, a co-founder and performer, at the Just Bach Concert Series: justbach.marika@gmail.com

Here are more links, including a preview with the Allegro movement in the last one:

https://justbach.org

facebook.org/JustBachSeries

youtube.com/channel/UCcyVFEVsJwklHAx9riqSkXQ?

 


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Today is Veterans Day. Here is some appropriate music by Beethoven to mark it. Can you guess which piece? What composer or music would you choose?

November 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020 – is Veterans Day.

It started out as Armistice Day in 1918 when the end of World War I was declared to take place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

It is a day to mark the service of all veterans – not just those who died in the line of duty, as is celebrated on Memorial Day.

You can find a lot of choice of classical music to play for Veterans Day. Here is one link to a compilation that features patriotic songs and marches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJepYzH1VUY

But The Ear settled on Beethoven (below, in an 1815 portrait by Joseph Willebrord Maehler).

Can you guess which piece?

It is not the memorable funeral marches on the Piano Sonata in A-Flat, Op. 26, or the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

It is also not the “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” in the String Quartet, Op. 132.

And it is not “Wellington’s Victory” or the “Egmont” Overture or the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” with its triumphant fast movements.

Instead it is the second movement of the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92. (You can hear it see it represented graphically in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That is the very well known Allegretto movement with its repetitious and almost hypnotizing, soaring theme. It seems like a funeral march, full of introspection, poignancy and sadness, that is a bit brisker and more lyrical than usual.

It is so popular, in fact, that it has been used as a soundtrack in many movies, including “The King’s Speech” and has inspired works based on it including the “Fantasia on an Ostinato” by the contemporary American composer John Corigliano.

If it seems an unexpected choice, you just need to know more about its history.

It was composed 1811-1812, and Beethoven correctly considered it one of his finest works. So did Richard Wagner who famously described as the “apotheosis of the dance” for the infectious rhythms throughout the symphony.

At its premiere in Vienna, in his introductory remarks Beethoven said: “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”

Beethoven (below, in 1815 as depicted in a paining the Joseph Willibrord Maehler) premiered the symphony at a charity concert in 1813 to help raise money for the Austrian and Bavarian soldiers who had been wounded at the Battle of Hanau while fighting against France during the Napoleonic Wars.

It was so popular with the first performance that the audience demanded and received an immediate encore performance of the second movement.

Here is a Wikipedia link to the history of the symphony: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._7_(Beethoven)

To this day, the Seventh Symphony, so charged with energy, remains for many people, conductors and orchestral players their favorite Beethoven symphony.

It is ironic that Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Paul de Hueck) performed the Seventh Symphony at the last concert he ever conducted – at the Tanglewood Festival in August 1990. He took the second movement at a slower-than-usual tempo and many have criticized Bernstein, who was in terrible health, and have suggested that he was using it as a funeral march or homage for himself. 

They may be right. But in retrospect the choice of Bernstein – who died two months later — finds a certain justification in the original motive for the entire symphony and especially the second movement.

Listen for yourself.

Then tell us what you think.

Does this movement justify it being played on Veterans Day?

What music would you choose to mark the day?

What do you think of the Symphony No. 7 in general and the second movement in particular?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet resumes its FREE Beethoven cycle virtual and online this Friday night with two other programs this semester

September 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, performing the first all-Beethoven program in Collins Recital Hall) will resume its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets online and virtually this coming Friday night.

This third concert is free, and as you might have read in previous reviews, The Ear found the first two to be outstanding performances that also mixed works from early, middle and late periods.

The cycle is being undertaken to mark the Beethoven Year, which culminates this December with the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer (below).

Cellist Parry Karp (below) – the longest-standing member of the quartet and the person who often speaks for the quartet – sent the following note for posting:

“I thought I should bring the public up to date with the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle. Obviously things have had to change because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, we were doing three quartets per concert. Since we now need to give the performances virtually and online, we have decided to perform two quartets per concert. Sitting at a computer for two hours at a time seemed a bit too much!

“We will be continuing the Beethoven cycle starting this Friday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. CDT. The program will consist of the early String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 No. 5; and the late String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, with the famous “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” (heard played by the Alban Berg Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The link to watch that concert is at: https://youtu.be/Mf-Mpt3EyNk

“Charles Dill (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor of musicology at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, will give a short lecture about each quartet before the Pro Arte Quartet performs.

“Although the concerts will be taking place in the bigger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center, the hall will be closed to the public for reasons of safety and public health.

“We will be playing with masks and with more separation or social distance from each other, which is a challenge and takes some adjusting to. It will also be odd to perform without a live audience.

“Unfortunately, because of copyright questions and royalties from the music editions we are using, the online concerts will not be archived for later viewing

“The other two concerts in the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle this semester will be on Friday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. CDT and Friday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. CST.

“We plan to complete the Beethoven cycle during the spring semester of 2021.

The programs for this semester are listed below.”

SEMESTER I SCHEDULE

Beethoven String Quartet Cycle will be performed by the Pro Arte Quartet with pre-performance lectures of the quartets by Professor Charles Dill

Pro Arte Quartet members (below in photo by Rick Langer) are: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.

For history and background about the Pro Arte Quartet, which is the oldest active string quartet in the history of music, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/.

PROGRAM 3

This Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall.

String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800); and String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (1825)

PROGRAM 4: Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. CDT in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800); and the String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127 (1825)

PROGRAM 5: Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. CST in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800); String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (1806)

 


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Classical music: On Wednesday at noon, Just Bach turns to C.P.E. Bach. At night, the Middleton Community Orchestra, with soloist Paran Amirinazari, plays the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Bruch plus works by Janacek and Sibelius.

February 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Wednesday, Feb. 19, features two noteworthy concerts, one by Just Bach at noon and the other by the Middleton Community Orchestra at 7:30 p.m.

Here are details:

JUST BACH

For this month’s FREE one-hour Just Bach concert (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) on this Wednesday at noon in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, attention will turn from father to son.

The concert features music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (below), the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert opens with a movement from the Sonata in A Minor, Wq. 70/4, H. 85, performed by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

The program continues with a recently rediscovered Cantata, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande” (I Am Content with My Station), featuring bass-baritone Professor Paul Rowe, and the Just Bach period-instrument players led by Kangwon Kim.

Just Bach co-founder and soprano Sarah Brailey (below) will lead the chorale sing-along, a beloved audience-participation feature of these programs.

The program concludes with eight selections from the “Geistliche Oden und Lieder ‘Gellert Lieder’” (Sacred Odes and Songs ‘Gellert Songs’), performed by students of Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson), accompanied by organist Mark Brampton Smith.

This will also be the first concert with a mother and daughter performing, with violinist Leanne League in the Just Bach players, and soprano Cecilia League in the Paul Rowe studio.

Performers are: Sarah Brailey, soprano; Paul Rowe, baritone; Kangwon Kim, violin 1 (below); Leanne League, violin 2; Katrin Talbot, viola; Anton TenWolde, cello; Mark Brampton Smith, organ; Allyson Mills, Cecilia League, Carly Ochoa and Ella Anderson, sopranos; and Jack Innes, Jake Elfner, Nick Schinner and Chase Kozak, baritones.

The concert is free and open to the public, with a goodwill offering collected.

Other Just Bach concerts this spring, all Wednesdays at noon are on: March 25, April 15 and May 20.

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

At 7:30 p.m., the mostly amateur and critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform its winter concert as part of its 10th anniversary season.

The concert takes place in the comfortable and acoustically pleasing  Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) that is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

The program, under conductor-composer Steve Kurr, includes the “Lachian Dances” by Leos Janacek; “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius; and the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with guest soloist Paran Amirinazari (below). (You can hear the finale of the violin concerto, played by Sarah Chang, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $15 for adults. Students are admitted free.

The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and auditorium doors open at 7 p.m.

There will be a meet-and-greet reception (below) with the orchestra players and audience members after the concert.

For more information about upcoming concerts, how to join the orchestra and how to support it, call (608) 212-8690 or go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

 


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Classical music: Happy Thanksgiving! What composer, music or performer are you grateful for? Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet repeats the FREE but fantastic opening concert of its complete Beethoven cycle this Sunday afternoon

November 28, 2019
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ALERT: One of the Thanksgiving traditions for music fans is that from 10 a.m. to noon today, Wisconsin Public Radio will again broadcast highlights from this year’s honors concerts by choirs, bands and orchestras from the Wisconsin School Music Association. Music education is something to give thanks for. You can hear middle school and high school student performers from around the state as well as WPR’s usual Thanksgiving offerings of American composers and music, and then special Thanksgiving programs about gratitude.

By Jacob Stockinger

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today – Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019 – is Thanksgiving Day.

It was Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) who once remarked, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

How true, how true.

There is such a wealth of composers, works and performers — going back many centuries — that we can be grateful for. In the Comment section, The Ear wants to hear from you about what one you would name — with a YouTube link, if possible.

But this year he has his own choice: the “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” – by Beethoven (below), who used it as a movement in his late String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132.

You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, where the playing of the four string instruments also gets an interesting and fascinating graphic depiction of its structure.

The composer wrote this sublime and other-worldy music when he recovered from what he thought was a life-threating illness.

But with the Beethoven Year of 2020 fast approaching – along with celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – The Ear has another reason for his choice.

If you missed last Friday’s superb FREE opening concert of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in the new Collins Recital Hall of the Hamel Music Center), you have a chance to catch a second performance this coming Sunday afternoon, Dec. 1. (Members, below left are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.)

From 12:30 to 2 p.m. the Pro Arte will performance the same program – and ultimately the complete cycle of six concerts — for Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen. You can attend it in person for FREE in Brittingham Gallery 3 (below) of the museum or you can stream it live.

Here are links to the program and to the streaming portal and the program: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen11/

https://c.streamhoster.com/embed/media/O7sBNG/OS1C0ihJsYK/iqf1vBMs3qg_5

And here is a link to the complete schedule of the Beethoven string quartet cycle, done over the next 14 months, by the Pro Arte Quartet, which includes background on the Pro Arte. You’ll notice, by the way, that the Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving will be performed on the program for next Oct. 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/11/19/classical-music-this-friday-night-nov-22-the-uw-madisons-pro-arte-quartet-starts-its-beethoven-cycle-of-the-complete-16-string-quartets-here-are-the-dates-times-venues-and-programs-for/

 


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will present a Grand Tour of musical styles to mark its success after 20 years. The “tour” starts this Saturday, July 6, and runs through Saturday, July 13. Part 1 of 2

July 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival (below, the All-Festival Concert in 2018) have come up with.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A interview for this blog. Here is Part 1 of 2:

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Madison Early Music Festival. Can you briefly summarize the progress of the festival over all those years and how you – through audience size, participants, media coverage – measure the success it has achieved?

How successful is this year’s festival compared to the beginning festival and to others in terms of enrollment, budgets and performers? How does this of MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

What can you say about where the festival will go in the coming years?

As the 20th Madison Early Music Festival approaches, we have looked back at how far we have come from 1999 when we were a little festival of 60 participants and faculty. We have grown to our current size of 140 faculty members and participants — fellow lovers of early music.

Last year, we had the largest group of participants when 120 students enrolled. MEMF now attracts students of all ages, from 18 to 91, amateurs and professionals, from all over North America and Europe.

Our success is due to the help and support of many individuals and outside organizations. We could not manage MEMF without the amazing staff at the Division of the Arts at UW-Madison. They help with everything from printed materials, website design and management, social media, grant writing, fundraising, proofreading and on-site assistance at all of our events and more.

Paul and I (below) work with Sarah Marty, the Program Director of MEMF, who keeps things organized and running smoothly throughout the year.

Also, we are grateful to our dedicated MEMF Board, donations from many individuals, grants, and the generosity of William Wartmann, who created an endowment for the festival, and after his death left an additional $400,000 for our endowment. It takes a village!

Not only have we become an important part of the summer music scene in Madison, but we have contributed to the national and international early music community. The 2019 concert series will be featuring artists from California to New York, Indiana to Massachusetts, and from Leipzig, Germany.

We hope to have many old and new audience members join us for this exciting celebration of our 20th year. For future seasons our motto is “To infinity and beyond!” as we continue to build on our past successes.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

This year we have a new program, the Advanced Voice Intensive, which provides an opportunity for auditioned advanced singers who are interested in a capella vocal music from the Renaissance – singing sacred polyphony and madrigals to improve their skills as ensemble singers.

Twenty singers from all over the country will be joining the inaugural program to rehearse and perform music from Italy, England and Germany.

At the end of the week they will sing in a masterclass with the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) on Thursday, July 11, at 11:30 a.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. On Saturday, July 13, they will perform in a FREE concert with the popular Advanced Loud Band ensemble in Morphy Recital Hall.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. and the concerts in Mils Hall begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass; each individual concert is $22, for students $12. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee, or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

We also have two Fringe Concerts this year featuring new vocal ensembles from Wisconsin. On Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m. at Pres House, Schola Cantorum of Eau Claire (below), a 12-voice ensemble directed by UW-Madison graduate Jerry Hui, will perform “Mystery and Mirth: A Spanish Christmas.”

And on Wednesday, July 10, at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the Milwaukee-based Aperi Animam (below) perform “Libera Nos,” a program of sacred vocal music.

The Fringe Concerts are FREE with donations accepted at the door.

Why was the theme of “The Grand Tour” chosen for the festival? What is the origin of the conceit, and what major composers and works will be highlighted?

We decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary by choosing a theme that would be broader than previous years and portray what people might experience when they are 20 years old – traveling abroad on a gap year.

We were also inspired by Englishman Thomas Coryat, aka “The First Tourist.” He published his travelogue Crudities in 1611, an amusing and thorough account of his five months of travel throughout Europe. This tradition of the Grand Tour of Europe continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, especially when wealthy young aristocrats finished their formal schooling.

Several of the concert programs this summer feature quotes from different travelogues, including Coryat’s, as an organizational concept. If you search all over Europe, you find an American at Versailles learning courtly manners, and a fictional Englishman, born in 1620, sending postcards from the Grand Tour.

We will also have a stop at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with the silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and a musical tour of sacred vocal music and madrigals. This theme allowed us to include music from many different time periods from all over Europe — a rich Grand Tour of musical offerings!

The opening concert on this Saturday, July 6, features Dark Horse Consort returning to Madison with Wanderlust, their newly created program for MEMF’s Grand Tour theme.  The program follows the misadventures of an English gentleman as he embarks on a continental Grand Tour adventure in search of love and fulfillment.

Our hero’s travelogue includes springtime consort songs by Alfonso Ferrabosco and William Byrd; Erasmus Widmann’s beguiling German dances dedicated to women; the wooing songs of the Italian gondolier; and sultry Spanish airs.

On Sunday, July 7, Alchymy Viols (below) performs “American at Versailles,” an original ballet masque of French baroque music, dance and drama written and choreographed by Sarah Edgar, featuring Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano; Sarah Edgar, director and dancer; and guest soprano Paulina Francisco. The American on the Grand Tour encounters the exotic world of French baroque manners, dress, dance and love.

TOMORROW: Part 2 explores the rest of the festival next week, including a rare book exhibit and the All-Festival finale on Saturday night


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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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.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: Prize-winning composer John Harbison has turned 80. In February, Madison will see many celebrations of his birthday, starting this Friday night with the Imani Winds

January 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Feb. 1, a month-long celebration in Madison of the 80th birthday of critically acclaimed and prize-winning composer John Harbison (below) gets underway.

The festivities start with a concert by the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds (below), which will perform this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. – with a pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. — in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The program includes Harbison’s popular Wind Quintet.

Here is a link with more information about the group, the program and tickets: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

Among America’s most distinguished artistic figures, Harbison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur ”genius grant’ and a Pulitzer Prize. His work encompasses all genres, from chamber music to opera, sacred to secular. (You can hear Harbison discuss his approach to composing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He has composed for most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York; and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Institute Professor at MIT, Harbison serves as composer, conductor, performer, teacher and scholar. He divides his time between Cambridge, Mass., and Token Creek, Wis., where he co-founded and co-directs a summer chamber music festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison.

Other local birthday events include a performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra; several chamber music and choral concerts at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, including one by the Mosaic Chamber Players; an exhibition of books and manuscripts at the Mills Music Library at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library.

There are also several concerts, including the world premiere of a new Sonata for Viola, and a composer residency at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music; and the world premiere of a new motet by the Madison Choral Project.

Harbison will also be featured in radio interviews and broadcast retrospectives by both Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT community radio.

National and international celebrations include other world premieres of commissions, many new recordings and the publication of Harbison’s autobiographical book about Johann Sebastian Bach, “What Do We Make of Bach?”

For more details about the many local celebrations, you can go to the following two links. Schedules, programs and updates – events are subject to change — will be posted at www.tokencreekfestival.org and www.johnharbison.com.

To receive “Harbison Occasions,” an intermittent e-newsletter, write to arsnova.artsmanagement@gmail.com


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