The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist James Giles will replace Ya-Fei Chuang for TONIGHT’s recital at Farley’s House of Pianos

April 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the followed announcement from Farley’s House of Pianos about its solo recital tonight.

“We are sad to announce that pianist Ya-Fei Chuang has sustained an injury that will prevent her from performing for us TONIGHT and teaching a master class on Sunday. It is our intent to reschedule her as soon as her health and schedule permit.

“In the meantime, we are very fortunate that James Giles (below), of Northwestern University, is able to step in and perform for us, and we are excited about the program and repertoire he has shaped for us.

“We apologize for this last-minute change, but are excited to introduce James Giles to our Salon Piano Series audience, and look forward to seeing you TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.”

His recital at Salon Piano Series will include works of Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Isaac Albeniz, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, Leopold Godowsky and others.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $50 in at the door ($10 for tickets) and $45 in advance at:

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3499200

For more information about the master class, including participants and repertoire, call Farley’s at (608) 271-2626 or go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/04/04/classical-music-acclaimed-pianist-ya-fei-chuang-plays-works-by-schubert-liszt-and-ravel-this-saturday-night-at-farleys-house-of-piano/

Giles has been praised as “a technically polished, elegant pianist” (Sibelius Academy, Helsinki), “with a riveting intelligence given to everything he play[s],” (Wigmore Hall, London), a “distinctive interpretive persona [and] beautiful pianism … direct and unmannered” (Alice Tully Hall, New York). His Paris recital at the Salle Cortot in 2004 was hailed as “a true revelation, due equally to the pianist’s artistry as to his choice of program.” (You can hear Giles playing the Humoresque by Robert Schumann in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Giles regularly performs in important musical centers in America, Europe, and Asia, in solo and chamber recitals and as concerto soloist. A native of North Carolina, he studied at the Manhattan School, the Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, and at Oberlin College. He was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study in Italy with the legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman.

Coordinator of the Piano Program and Director of Music Performance Graduate Studies at Northwestern University, Giles is director of the Amalfi Coast Music Festival during the summers, and was director of the 2017 American Liszt Society Festival.


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Classical music: Superstar soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Emanuel Ax headline the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert Series next season

March 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following major announcement to post about the Wisconsin Union Theater, which The Ear calls “the Carnegie Hall of Madison” for its long and distinguished history of presenting great performing artists.

The Wisconsin Union Theater (below top, with Shannon Hall below bottom) is delighted to announce the schedule for its 100th Concert Series during 2019-20.

In this celebratory year, we introduce two exciting additions: A transformative gift by Kato Perlman establishes the David and Kato Perlman Chamber Series, ensuring the world’s best chamber ensembles continue to perform as a regular feature of the Concert Series.

Additionally, two Concert Series performances will take place in the Mead Witter School of Music’s new Hamel Music Center (below). We look forward to increased collaborations with the school of music.

The 100th anniversary series was curated by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee, with wife-and-husband advisors pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (below, in a photo by Tristan Cook), who are celebrated musicians and directors of several festivals of classical music and also serve as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. (You can hear them performing music by Johann Sebastian Bach in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The first season of this distinguished series was in 1920-1921, and featured soprano May Peterson, violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch.

Nineteen years later, in 1939-1940, the series moved to the newly opened Wisconsin Union Theater. The first season in the Wisconsin Union Theater featured bass singer Ezio Pinza, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, violinist Joseph Szigeti, pianist Robert Casadesus and, the highlight, contralto Marian Anderson.

Through these 99 years, numerous renowned, accomplished and prominent classical musicians have played in the series, the longest continuous classical series in the Midwest. Some made their debut here and continued returning as their fame rose.

See this article for an interview with former WUT director Michael Goldberg about the history of the series.

The schedule for the 100th Concert Series, including the inaugural David and Kato Perlman Chamber Music Series, is:

Oct. 6 – A cappella choral group Chanticleer, Hamel Music Center. Program To Be Announced

Nov. 2 – Pianist Emanuel Ax (below), Shannon Hall. All-Beethoven program, including Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

Dec. 6 – The Kalichstein, Laredo and Robinson Piano Trio (below), Shannon Hall. “Canonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann; Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and Piano Trio in B-flat major “Archduke” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Jan. 25, 2020 – The Escher String Quartet (below), featuring David Finckel, Shannon Hall. Quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, Fritz Kreisler and Franz Schubert.

March 5, 2020 – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – featuring David Finckel, Wu Han, Paul Neubauer and Arnaud Sussman, Shannon Hall. Sonatine by Antonin Dvorak; Piano Quartet by Josef Suk; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms.

March 7, 2020 – Wu Han with the UW Symphony Orchestra, Hamel Music Center. Program TBD.

March 28, 2020 – Violinist Gil Shaham (below) with pianist Akira Eguchi, Shannon Hall. Program TBD.

May 2, 2020 – Special Gala Concert with Renée Fleming (below). Shannon Hall. Mixed Recital.

All programs are subject to change.

Subscriptions will be available starting March 18, 2019. Subscribers benefits include: access to the best seats, 20% off the price of single tickets, no order fees, a free ticket to Wu Han’s performance with the UW Symphony Orchestra, and the opportunity to be first to purchase tickets to Renée Fleming’s 100th Anniversary Gala Concert.

Find more information about the series and the artists at www.uniontheater.wisc.edu. Subscriptions will be available on March 18 at www.artsticketing.wisc.edu.


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Classical music: This Friday night, the Wisconsin Union Theater presents a world-class Spanish string quartet and will also announce the special concerts to mark its centennial anniversary next season

February 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as a two-fer, and then some, at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Friday night, March 1.

The main event is the Madison debut of a world-class string quartet from Spain.

The other event is the announcement of the schedule for the Concert Series’ 2019-2020 season — the series’ 100th season.

The first event is the concert by Cuarteto Casals (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall.

Prices for the event are: the general public, $25-40; for Union members, $25-36; for UW faculty and staff members, $25-38; for young people, $20; and for UW-Madison students, $10. Tickets can be bought online, by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) or in person. See locations and hours here.

The program includes the String Quartet in C Major “The Bird,” Op. 33, No. 3, by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Quartet No. 3 by Bela Bartok; selections from the Fantasies for String Quartet by Henry Purcell; and the String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, by Claude Debussy. (You can hear the Cuarteto Casals play a movement of a different Haydn string quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Cuarteto Casals was founded in 1997 at the Escuela Reina Sofia in Madrid. They are named after great 20th-century Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (below). Members of the quartet are Vera Martinez Mehner and Abel Tomas, violins; Jonathan Brown, viola; and Arnau Tomas, cello.

The group achieved international recognition after winning First Prizes at the London and Brahms-Hamburg competitions. After receiving the prestigious Burletti-Buitoni Trust award designed to assist young musicians, the quartet acquired a matching set of Baroque and Classical period bows, used to distinguish between musical styles.

The year 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the quartet, and also the start of a commemorative project: a six-concert series of the complete Beethoven quartets, accompanied by six commissioned works from great composers since the 17th century.

The quartet was selected as ambassadors of Catalan culture by the Generalitat of Catalunya, and accompanies the King of Spain on diplomatic visits.

It is the quartet-in-residence at the Spanish Royal Palace through 2020 and the quartet-in-residence at the Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Carol Carlson (below) will offer a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m. Carol holds both Doctor of Musical Arts and Master of Music degrees in violin performance from the UW-Madison.

Carlson dedicates herself to music education as co-founder, co-director and teacher of Music con Brio, a non-profit organization that provides affordable violin lessons and equipment for students at Emerson Elementary School in Madison. Music con Brio (below, in a photo by Scott Maurer) will perform on the stage of Shannon Hall from 7 to 7:20 p.m.

This program was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. The media sponsor is WORT 89.9 FM.


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Classical music: Bach Around the Clock marks Johann Sebastian’s 334th birthday next Saturday with a FREE 12-hour celebration. Here is the full schedule. Plus, Parry Karp plays all-French cello music on Thursday night

February 25, 2019
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ALERT: This coming Thursday night, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW-Madison cellist Parry Karp, of the Pro Arte Quartet, will perform a FREE all-French recital with longtime piano partner Eli Kalman of the UW-Oshkosh. The program includes the Cello Sonata by Claude Debussy; the Cello Sonata by Albéric Magnard; “Granada” from “Foreign Evenings” by Louis Vierne; and Cello Sonata No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saens. For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-parry-karp-cello-and-eli-kalman-piano-2/

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By Jacob Stockinger

The event is coming a couple of weeks earlier than the actual birthday on March 21.

But next Saturday, March 2, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., the annual Bach Around the Clock will celebrate the 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

At 10 p.m., there will even be a birthday cake for the birthday boy and for those who are still there celebrating the Big Bang of classical music.

The FREE informal event – complete with interviews, snacks and beverages – will take place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below) at 1833 Regent Street on Madison’s near west side close to Randall Elementary School.

How do you like your Bach?

Sung? Played on instruments?

As originally scored? As arranged and transcribed?

Played by students? By adult amateurs? Or by professionals?

Whatever you are looking for and love to hear, chances are good you will find it on the schedule. There will be all of the above, and more. There will be cantatas and concertos, suites and sonatas, preludes and fugues. (You can hear the instantly recognizable and frequently played Prelude No. 1 in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The whole event will be streamed live locally and beyond.

To get an idea of what will happen from previous events, go to the previous blog post, which has a lot of photos, or use this blog’s search engine:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/classical-music-bach-around-the-clock-2019-is-looking-for-performers-of-all-kinds-to-play-on-march-2/

For more information, here is a link to the home website that has both the full schedule and a link for streaming as well as other information about free parking as well as how to participate in and support the event.

https://bachclock.com

Here is the specific link to the full schedule, with names of performers and pieces:

https://bachclock.com/concert-schedule/

Take a look. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations about what others should attend and listen to? Leave a COMMENT if you want.

The Ear wants to hear.


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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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Classical music: WQXR radio names 19 musicians to watch in ’19. What do you think of the choices? Who would you add?

January 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What will 2019 bring in the way of classical music?

What and who should we be looking at and paying attention to?

WQXR — the famed classical radio station in New York City – recently published its list of 19 to watch in ‘19, with detailed reasons for and explanations of their picks.

It seems like a pretty good choice to The Ear, although there is always something of a parlor game aspect to such projects.

Nonetheless, the list covers a fine variety – instrumentalists and vocalists, young and old, American and international, the well-known and the up-and-coming such as the opera singer Devone Tines (below, in a photo by Nikolai Schukoff).

Some names will be familiar to Madison audiences – such as pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Nicola Benedettti, the JACK Quartet and cellist Steven Isserlis — especially through their live appearances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the Madison Symphony Orchestra plus broadcasts on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a link to the list: https://www.wqxr.org/story/wqxr-presents-19-19-artists-collaborations-upcoming-year/

The Ear can think of some other musicians that he would add to the list.

An especially deserving one of them is the young American virtuoso pianist George Li (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Born in China and brought as a child to the United States by his parents, Li attended Harvard and just finished his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. (At the bottom, you can hear Li play virtuosic music by Liszt and Horowitz in the YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert at National Public Radio or NPR.)

Li won the silver medal in the 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and had a lot of people talking about the energy and excitement of his playing. He was praised for both outstanding technical prowess and deep expressiveness.

He then took first prize at a piano competition in Paris.

Ever since, he has been steadily booked. At 23, the amiable Li has already toured China, Japan and Russia and seems to have a very busy schedule ahead of him, judging by his posts on Instagram.

He has also released his first recording on the Warner Classics label, a fine CD that received many positive reviews from critics, including this one.

The program includes Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor “Funeral March,” Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli,” and Consolation No. 3 and the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

Given all the concertos he is now performing, it would not surprise one to see his next recording be a concerto, possibly the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto N. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, which brought him instant acclaim.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.georgelipianist.com

And here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Li

Keep your ears and eyes on George Li.

What do you think of the choices made by WQXR?

Who would you add to the list of musicians to watch in 2019, and why?

If possible, maybe you can include a YouTube link to a performance, live or recorded, in your comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Andrew Sewell launches his own website

January 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just two weeks before he mounts the podium on Friday, Jan. 25, for the first Masterworks Concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this season, maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has launched his own website.

Sewell, who was born in New Zealand and became a naturalized American citizen, is the music director and conductor of the WCO, and is also now in his second season as music director and conductor of the San Luis Obispo Symphony in California. Plus, he has many guest appearances, from London to Hong Kong, and numerous awards to his credit. (You can hear an interview with Sewell in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The homepage of his new website, which features becoming black-and-white photos of Sewell, looks deceptively simple to navigate.

But there is much more than is apparent at first to learn there.

Under BIO you can read about his life in detail and also listen and watch archival videos of him conducting the Wichita and the San Luis Obispo orchestras in major works by Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms, along with critical praise for his performances and programming.

Under SCHEDULE, you see concert dates and soloists but no programs — at first. But if you click on the yellow words for PURCHASE TICKETS and either MASTERWORKS or CONCERT, you will be directed to full information about all the concerts by both of the orchestras he heads.

And by clicking on GALLERY you will find a generous montage of color photos, both serious and playful, of the friendly and talented Sewell at work and at ease.

Here is a link to the website:

https://www.andrewsewell.net/?fbclid=IwAR3zaRVX5psZMfYQNBW2XKIj6AvgY5fiVMQXZw-yOALDQDmZTvBElX6U3us

The Ear finds this a useful and appealing tool to learn more about a Madison maestro whose achievements have consistently stood out for almost 20 years and have altered the landscape of local music-making for the better.

The handsome new website is a job well done, and is well worth your time to check out, bookmark and use regularly.

Bravo, maestro!


Classical music: Soprano and past winner Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition

October 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about a well-established and international annual event that takes place in Madison:

“We are delighted to announce that soprano Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition.

“Sarah was one of our first finalists, in the second year of the event, and she won first prize the following year. Her wonderful performances of “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Ferma l’ali” from La resurrezione from the 2015 Handel Aria Competition can be seen on our YouTube channel.

“Sarah recently returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study for her DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) with voice professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

“She continues to maintain a busy international touring schedule, and in addition has already co-founded a monthly Madison midday concert series entitled Just Bach. Please take a moment to read her fascinating and impressive bio.

“As we welcome Sarah to her new position, we want to express our boundless gratitude to Cheryl Bensman-Rowe. Cheryl, the co-director of the Madison Early Music Festival,  was the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition from the very start, and we would never have been able to launch this event without her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and organizational skills.

“The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will take place on Friday, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.”


Classical music: “Just Bach” — a monthly mid-day FREE concert series — starts this Thursday at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church. Plus, the FREE fifth annual UW Brass Fest takes place Friday and Saturday

September 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday and Saturday, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will host  Brass Fest V. It features guest artists and the faculty group The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Events are FREE and OPEN to the public. For a schedule and more information about events and performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/brass-fest-v-alumni/

By Jacob Stockinger

A new and noteworthy monthly event starts this Thursday. Here is an announcement:

“Just Bach” is a new monthly mid-day concert series in Madison. It celebrates the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (below).

The series of hour-long concerts kicks off at 1 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 27,at Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue.

Admission is free, but goodwill offerings will be accepted.

The Madison series, inspired by a model and successful program established by conductor Julian Wachner at the Trinity Wall Street Church in New York City, will offer monthly concerts at Luther Memorial Church, presenting programs curated from Bach’s sacred vocal repertoire.

As in New York City, the concerts will open with all present singing a hymn, followed by an organ solo, with the rest of the program devoted to cantatas, motets, and possibly oratorios or passions. An important component of the initiative will be the training and inclusion of local singers for the chorus. The period-instrument orchestra will include local and regional players.

Audience members may take in food and beverage for their lunch, which can be consumed during the program.

This Thursday afternoon, organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will play the “Little” Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 (heard, with a graphic depiction, in the YouTube video at the bottom); and the choir and orchestra will perform two beautiful cantatas: O heileges Geist- und Wasserbad (O Bath of Holy Spirit and Water), BWV 165; and Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desire), BWV 32.

Adds the organizer Marika Fischer Hoyt (below), who also directs the annual Bach Around the Clock event in March: “The goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large.

“The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived. Members of the artistic team will prepare local singers to perform alongside seasoned professionals and develop a familiarity and love of the repertoire.

“The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

“The dream team bringing this venture to Madison consists of four individuals who have each dedicated a significant portion of their careers to the music of J.S. Bach: soprano Sarah Brailey, who did her master’s at the UW-Madison and won the Handel Aria Competition; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; UW-Madison professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe; and modern and baroque violist Marika Fischer Hoyt who also performs with the Madison Bach Musicians, Sonata à Quattro and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The vocal soloists for the concert on this Thursday will be Sarah Brailey (below), Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, tenor Wesley Dunnagan, and Paul Rowe. The period orchestra of local and regional baroque players will be led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim.

After the debut, Just Bach dates go to Wednesdays and will take place at 1 p.m. on Oct. 31, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

Our Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SingetdemHerrn

Our Instagram account is at https://www.instagram.com/_just_bach_/

A website is in the process of being constructed.

We are extremely grateful to Pastor Brad Pohlman and the congregation of Luther Memorial Church for hosting the series this Fall.

We invite the Madison community to come spend a lunch hour with the sublime music of J.S. Bach – feed your body and soul!”


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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