The Well-Tempered Ear

This weekend, starting Friday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra finishes up its winter season of online chamber music

April 15, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is the time of the year when music groups generally announce their next season while finishing up the current one.

But of course the pandemic continues to shroud plans for the new upcoming season in uncertainty and whether it will be online or in-person.

Meanwhile, groups are in the final stretch of finishing up this season.

This Friday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m., the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO, below in photo by Mike Gorski) will debut the fourth and last online chamber music concert of its curtailed and substituted winter season.

The varied program includes works, both well-known and neglected, by four composers — from Italy, Russia, France and Austria — who come from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

The concert begins with the complete Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, RV 580, by Antonio Vivaldi (below). The string accompaniment will be scaled down.

Then comes the complete Septet for Winds, Strings and Piano by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (below).

The first and third movements of the Nonet by the rediscovered 19th-century French composer Louise Ferenc come next. (Here is the Wikipedia link to Ferenc (below):

The final music will be the first, fourth and fifth movements – including the famous theme-and-variations – of the famously tuneful “Trout” Piano Quintet by Franz Schubert (below).

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the namesake theme-and-variations movement — based on one of Schubert’s songs — played by Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre and Zubin Mehta, with a graphical depiction of the score.

The concert lasts 60-75 minutes.

Tickets are $30.

Here is a link to program notes by WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) and to purchasing a ticket through the Overture Center box office.

The ticket is good for one viewing between Friday night and Monday night, April 19, at 7:30 p.m.

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A busy weekend of online concerts features the UW Symphony, Edgewood College, Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Bach Around the Clock and more

March 25, 2021

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By Jacob Stockinger

With only a little over a month left before the academic year ends at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s not surprising that the last weekend in March is very busy with noteworthy – and competing – online concerts.

Each morning at 8 through Friday, Bach Around the Clock will release the last concerts of its 10-day online festival. You can find the programs – including the finale Friday night at 7 with Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 — and link for streaming here:

The weekend starts tonight with one of The Ear’s favorite groups during the Pandemic Year: the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra

Here is a day-by-day lineup. All times are Central Daylight Time:


The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) performs a FREE virtual online concert TONIGHT starting at 7:30 p.m.

The concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. talk about Igor Stravinsky with modern musicologist and Penn State Professor Maureen Carr as well as conductor Oriol Sans and Susan Cook, UW musicologist and director of the Mead Witter School of Music.

The program is: Suite from the opera “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell, with student conductor Alison Norris; Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra by the contemporary American composer Steve Reich; and  the Neo-Classical “Apollon musagète” (Apollo, Leader of the Muses) by Stravinsky. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an excerpt of the Stravinsky played by the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting.)

Here is the link to the talk and concert. Click on more and you can also see the members of the orchestra and the two violin soloists:

For more information about the program, including notes, go to:


At 7:30 p.m. the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will post for three days the third of its four online chamber music concerts (below). There will be excerpts of music by Beethoven and Brahms as well as complete works by Jessie Montgomery and Alyssa Morris.

Tickets to the online on-demand event are $30, with some discounts available, and are good through Monday evening.

Here is a link to more about this concert, including program notes by conductor and music director Andrew Sewell, and how to purchase tickets:

At 8 p.m., the music department at Edgewood College will give a FREE online Spring Celebration concert. It will be livestreamed via

The performers include: the Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Sergei Pavlov (below); the Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of Nathan Wysock; and the Chamber Winds, directed by Carrie Backman.

Highlights include the Guitar Ensemble’s performance of Wish You Were Here, by David Gilmour and Rogers Waters, and the Chamber Winds epic Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Chamber Orchestra, which will perform live, will feature Musical moment No. 3, by Franz Schubert and Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg.


At noon, in Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square downtown, there will be a FREE online concert. Grace Presents: “A Patient Enduring”: This early music program of medieval conductus (a musical setting of metrical Latin texts) and ballade, English lute song, and duets from the early Italian Baroque features two sopranos, Grammy-winnner Sarah Brailey (below) and Kristina Boerger, with Brandon Acker on lute and theorbo.

Here is a link:

You can also go to this webpage for a link:

At 3 p.m. the Perlman Trio, a piano trio that is made up of UW-Madison graduate students, will give a FREE online concert. The program includes piano trios by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. 

Here is a link to the YouTube video:

Here is a link to the complete program plus background, names and photos of the performers as well as to the performance:

At 7 p.m. the UW-Madison’s Wingra Wind Quntet (below) will perform a FREE pre-recorded online concert. Here is a link to the video

And here is a link to the page with more background information about the faculty members – including bassoonist Marc Vallon (below top) and flutist Conor Nelson (below bottom) – and to the complete program:


From 4 to 5:30 p.m., guest mezzo-soprano Julia Ubank (below) will give a free online recital with pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

The program features songs by Mahler, Debussy, deFalla, Jake Heggie and Ellen Cogen.

Here is the complete program plus a link to the recital:

From 4 to 5:30 p.m. the Madison Opera will host a Opera Up Close cocktail hour discussion with four general directors of opera companies. Here is the website’s description:

“Four opera general directors walk into a chat room…. Stepping outside the Madison Opera family, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) is joined by three colleagues: Michael Egel of Des Moines Metro Opera, Ashley Magnus of Chicago Opera Theater, and Lee Anne Myslewski of Wolf Trap Opera.

“From how they got into opera, to the ups and downs of running an opera company, their favorite productions, funniest moments, and more, it will be a unique and entertaining afternoon.

Here is a link with more information including the cost of a subscription:

At 6 p.m., Rachel Reese, a UW-Madison doctoral student in violin, will give a lecture-concert about the Violin Concerto No. 2 by the rediscovered African-American composer Florence Price (below). She will be accompanied by pianist Aubrie Jacobson.

Here is a link to the concert plus background about Rachel Reese:

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The UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE online concert Thursday night and Friday night the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra debuts its second chamber music concert. But in-person micro-concerts on Sunday by the the Willy Street Chamber Players are sold-out

February 24, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The second half of the music season is well under way, with just about every major group performing online – or in one case even in person.

Here are three selections this week:


Two of the most musically and technically impressive concerts The Ear heard last semester took place at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. They were by the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Oriol Sans (below).

First, Sans conducted a socially distanced and virtual all-strings concert (below).

Then, for the second concert, the conductor had the winds and brass – which spray dangerous aerosol droplets – record their parts individually. Then for the live performance, Sans donned earphones and masterfully combined all the forces into a full orchestra performance (below).

You can see similar results – with percussion joining for the strings for the last piece — this Thursday night, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. on YouTube when the UW Symphony Orchestra live-streams a 90-muinute concert from the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center. No in-person attendance is allowed.

Here is the program:

I Crisantemi (Chyrsanthemums) by Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), with Michael Dolan, guest conductor

“Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” by contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) Coqueteos (Flirtations)

“Carmen” Suite (after the opera by Georges Bizet) by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932): Introduction; Dance; Carmen’s entrance and Habanera Torero; Adagio; Fortune-telling; and Finale.

Here is a link to the live-streamed video:

And here is a link to more information, including program notes and the names of members of the orchestra:


On Friday night at 7:30 p.m. the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) will offer the second of its Winter Chamber Series. It will run between 60 and 75 minutes.

There will be string, brass and percussion music by Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Steve Reich, Craig H. Russell and Thomas Siwe. Be aware that three of the works – string quartets by Mozart and Beethoven and a string sonata by Rossini — are presented in excerpts. That is not listed on the webpage.

The cost for one-time access between Friday night and Monday night is $30.

Here is a link to more information, including a link to ticket sales from the Overture Center box office and program notes by WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz):


The Micro-concerts scheduled for this coming Sunday, Feb. 28, by the esteemed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), are SOLD-OUT.

The 10-minute private concerts for two, which require masks and social distancing for all, are perhaps the most innovative move by any local music group during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ear, who expects concert habits to change after the pandemic, thinks such micro-concerts have a very bright future even after the pandemic is under control and audiences can return safely to mass events.

The concert are pay-what-you can but a $20 donation for two was suggested.

For more information about the micro-concerts, listen to the YouTube video at the bottom and go to:


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Take a free brief Chopin break, thanks to pianist Adam Neiman playing the first six preludes at the Salon Piano Series

January 14, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement about the latest monthly free concert excerpt from the Salon Piano Series. It features pieces by Chopin, some of which are played by students and amateurs, and other that require the technique of a virtuoso:

“During these uncertain times, we appreciate remembering time spent together enjoying music.

Please take a brief break from your day to see and hear Adam Neiman (below) perform Frederic Chopin’s Preludes 1-6, Opus 28. (The Ear hopes we get to hear the remaining 18 preludes in several installments from Neiman, who has performed with and recorded Mozart piano concertos with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell.\.)

The 8-minute video was recorded live at Farley’s House of Pianos as part of the
 Salon Piano Series on Feb. 26, 2017.

You can hear the performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Over the years, you have supported Salon Piano Series with your attendance, individual sponsorships, and donations. We look forward to bringing you world-class musical performances in our unique salon setting again soon.


Salon Piano Series


Classical music: This Friday brings a FREE concert at noon of cello and violin sonatas by Beethoven. At night, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra explores rarely heard works and composers plus the “Jupiter” Symphony by Mozart

February 19, 2020

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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Mosaic Chamber Players performing a one-hour, all-Beethoven concert in honor of the Beethoven Year, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The program is: Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1; and two violin sonatas, Op. 12, No. 3, and Op. 30, No. 2. For more information, go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

Can you tell the difference between the real Mozart and the “Swedish Mozart”?

You’ll have the chance to find out this Friday night, Feb. 21, if you go to the concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

That is when you can hear the Symphony in C-Sharp Minor, VB 140, by Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1791, below), an 18th-century German-born, short-lived composer who, as an exact contemporary of Mozart, spent most of his career at the court in Stockholm, Sweden, and became known as the “Swedish Mozart.”

(You can hear the opening movement of the Kraus symphony, played by Concerto Koln, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is more about Kraus (below):

The Kraus symphony opens the WCO concert.

Then for the purpose of comparison, the concert closes with Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551. It is often cited as Mozart’s most accomplished work in the symphonic form, and is renowned for its melodies and harmonies, and for the masterful, even spectacular, counterpoint in the last movement.

But that kind of discovery and approach to programming is not unusual for WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz), who has a penchant for exposing audiences to rarely heard works and composers as well as to well-known masterpieces.

For this concert, Sewell will be helped by the return of guest violin virtuoso Giora Schmidt (below in a photo by David Getzschman), who has been acclaimed for his technique, tone, lyricism and riveting interpretations. He played the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor by Sergei Prokofiev with the WCO in 2018.

Schmidt will solo in two rarely heard works for violin and orchestra: the 16-minute Violin Concerto, Op. 48, by the Russian composer Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987); and the 8-minute Romance by the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen (1840-1911).

For more about Kabalevsky (below), go to:

For more about Svendsen (below), who was a conductor and violinist as well as a composer, go to:

To purchase tickets ($10-$77) and to read a detailed biography of soloist Schmidt and find out more about the concert, go to:


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Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Madison likes it maestros. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra renews music director and conductor Andrew Sewell for another five years.

June 18, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just two weeks away from the start of the 30th annual Concerts on the Square concerts, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has renewed the contract of its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below) for another five years.


(The FREE and outdoors Concerts on the Square — below — will  run this summer on six consecutive Wednesdays at 7 p.m. from June 26 through July 31 on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. Here is a link with more information, including specific artists and programs:

Concerts on Square WCO orchetsra

Madison sure likes its maestros. And with good reason.

This fall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain (below) marks his 20th season with the MSO. During his tenure he has reshaped and refined the orchestra, and led it to “triple” performances.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Sewell arrived on the local scene in 2000. That is a long and solid tenure for the New Zealand-born Sewell, who is now a naturalized American citizen.

Little wonder that the WCO wants to retain him. Sewell revitalized his organization and helped bring the WCO back from the brink of ruin after the unexpected and premature death of David Lewis Crosby. He helped it secure a permanent home in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

Sewell (below) is a friendly, informal and congenial man plus an excellent conductor, especially in the Classical-era repertoire of Mozart and Haydn, who especially excels at eclectic programming. Under Sewell, the WCO is taken much more seriously for its winter “Masterworks” season than it ever has been. He finds and books outstanding yet affordable soloists, and he has recorded several noteworthy CDs with the WCO. Plus, he is in demand as a guest conductor around the world.

Madison is very lucky to have him and to hold him.

So, The Ear says “Congratulations, Maestro Sewell” and offers a shout-out with wishes for many more seasons with the WCO in Madison.

Andrew Sewell very casual Diane Seldick

Here is the official press release from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

MADISON, WI  – The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in the hallway to the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater) is pleased to announce the renewal of Maestro Andrew Sewell’s contract for another five-year term.

“Maestro Sewell was appointed music director on February 1, 2000, and since then has grown the orchestra’s repertoire, profile and stature in the Madison community and around the state.

WCO lobby

“I am delighted to continue my work here in Madison, my home, and am excited for what the next five years will bring” says Sewell.  “I feel privileged to live in a community that embraces the arts, and the opportunity to work with such extraordinary musicians.  I am pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish, with exciting guest artists and expanding repertoire, and look forward to performing many more seasons of beautiful music.” (At bottom, is the first of a two-part YouTube video in which Andrew Sewell reflects on music.)

“Doug Gerhart, executive director of the orchestra, remarks: “Andrew’s impressive artistic leadership has placed the WCO solidly among the top chamber orchestras in the United States.  He has an uncanny ability to create widely popular programs that link timeless masterpieces with contemporary, fresh compositions.”

“Gordon Ridley, chair of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra board of directors, adds: “Maestro Sewell has a knack of finding and bringing in extraordinary talent that we then see rise to new heights in the orchestral world.  We are very lucky to have him in Madison, Wisconsin.”

“Sewell is a sought after guest conductor, with recent guest engagements including the Illinois Symphony, the Eugene Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony, the Salem Chamber Orchestra, the OK Mozart Festival and the Peninsula Music Festival.  In June 2012 he made his opera debut with Hong Kong City Opera, and last November conducted the University of Wisconsin-Madison opera production of “Medea” by Luigi Cherubini. (Below, Sewell is seen with Robert Bracey in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, which is the WCO’s winter home.)

WCO Sewel Bracey B-9

“Entering its 54th year, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, led by Maestro Andrew Sewell, is a vibrant and thriving professional orchestra dedicated to connecting its audiences to the power of music.

“Annually, the WCO performs a five-concert Masterworks series in its permanent home at the Overture Center for the Arts magnificent Capitol Theater, two Holiday Pops, “Messiah” and Youth Concerts, and Madison’s premier six-concert outdoor summer event, Concerts on the Square®, celebrating its 30th year this summer.

“With a core orchestra of 34 musicians and an established endowment, WCO is one of the finest chamber orchestras in the country.  For more information, visit”

Classical music review: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra outperforms The Five Browns on the underwhelming opening night of the new season.

October 8, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is the key to the best-selling success of the brother and sister pianists known as The Five Browns (below), who were the guest soloists with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night’s season opener?

I wish I could say the key is the music.

But it isn’t.

That key was revealed in the one encore, a solo for all five, that they played at the end of the concert, after they had performed a Mozart three-piano concerto and a work specially composed for all five of them by Nico Muhly.

Up to that point the very large audience in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater had applauded the gracious and appealing family quintet with a relatively quiet enthusiasm.

But by the of the solo encore – a flashy, trashy, souped up five-piano version of Mozart’s “Rondo a la Turca” or Turkish Rondo finale from the solo piano sonata in A major, K. 331 — the audience was on its feet. The public had been wowed.

And why not? Cascading scales, fast octaves, repeated notes and complex finger work are all impressive physical feats, even when they serve as little else than musical filler. It all bought back memories from my youth of bestsellers and fellow chart-busting duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher (below), who scored a similar commercial success but long ago were artistically forgotten. Remember them?

And that pretty much tells the story. The Five Browns (below) are certainly more serious; but they too are nonetheless more about showmanship than musicianship. In the end, they make lucrative recordings and have had  10-year concert career because they provide a novelty or musical sideshow, and not because they are great musicians. Show biz saves them, not great interpretations. In short, they are more about entertaining than enlightening.

That is not to say that individually they are not fine musicians. After all, these two brothers and three sisters must have plenty of talent since they all attended Juilliard and all showed the chops to play very well as soloists.

But sometimes more is just more or even too much, and this one of those times. Playing the piano is not the same as making music.

When you want to open a new season with great attendance, a wise orchestra marketer once told The Ear, the statistics are clear: Choose a piano concerto.

After all, everyone loves the piano; there are plenty of piano concertos that are both popular and great; and a lot of piano students and frustrated amateur pianists will buy tickets. A great piano concerto is soul-stirring and dramatic, a metaphorical battle, like a football game with the University of Solo Pianists against the University of Big Orchestras.

But five very good pianists are not necessarily five times better than one great pianist. That point was proved in a concert that, overall, was musically underwhelming or disappointing.

True, given the soloists, the modest program of minor youthful works and no masterpieces was well-chosen –- a vintage blend of unknown pieces by well-known composers that has become the signature of WCO music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below).

Sewell opened the concert with a light and sprightly version of the 19-year-old Mozart’s Overture to “The Good Shepherd.” It was energetic, well voiced and transparent — what you look for in fine playing of even minor Mozart. And even minor Mozart has plenty of charm, if not substance.

Then Sewell led the orchestra in an energetic and convincing reading of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard youthful Symphony No. 1. You hear hints of the great “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies and the “Hebrides” Overture, and you see the 15-year-old Mendelssohn, who loved accessibility and clarity, mastering the past — including the taste for counterpoint that led him to pioneer the revival of J.S. Bach. He was indeed a fast learner, but still a student — not a master.

The second half was devoted to The Five Browns.

It started with the most impressive and substantive work of the evening: “The Edge of the World,” four pieces – described as “Four Nocturnes for Five Pianos” –- by the “young” 30-year-old up-and-coming American composer Nico Muhly (below).

While not a prodigy on the order of Mozart or Mendelssohn — and the unifying theme of the evening’s program was youth – Muhly has created a very atmospheric, if episodic, piece that reminded The Ear of Minimalists such as John Adams and Steve Reich, only with more variety, nuances and finesse.

It seemed to me a very difficult work, at least as I heard it in what was only its second public performance. The Browns have had a lot of time to rehearse and master it, and they play it impressively.

But even more impressive to me was how, with a lot less time, Sewell and his orchestra players (below) kept the difficult rhythms and played with conviction all those notes that can quickly become repetitive and boring. Given what they did with Mozart and Mendelssohn as well as Muhly, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turned out to be the best part of this concert and clearly outperformed the guest soloists.

Some will see Muhly’s work as great contemporary music. To me, it is competent music that will probably find a place in the repertoire as an oddity, much like The Five Browns themselves. It seems the 21st century equivalent of a piece for a monster concert by Louis Moreau Gottschalk or perhaps the contemporary Verbier Festival in Switzerland. But I suspect that Muhly, who has written successful movie scores and operas, has composed better music and has a big future ahead of him.

Who writes a piece for five pianos except on a weird commission to make money or honor a friendship or both. (Muhly was at Juilliard while the Browns were.)

Take a listen to other works at YouTube (at bottom) or at his website:

The Browns finished the program with Mozart’s early Three-Piano Concerto, which is pleasant enough but, again, no masterpiece when compared to Mozart’s 26 other piano concertos. Here again we heard Mozart Lite.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Five Browns was their unwillingness to bang. Until the very end, they did not indulge in silly pyrotechnics and virtuosity or in competitions of the “Anything You Can Play, I Can Play Louder” school. Their playing showed a lightness and clarity that helped, a subtlety and cooperation that proved especially productive in Mozart’s music.

In the end, it all made me wonder, and want to hear, what just One Brown could do individually with a truly great piano concerto. Plus, I ended up really wanting the WCO’s “Masterworks” series to program at least one masterwork per concert.

Here are what other local critics had to say:

Here is what John W. Barker had to say in Isthmus:

Here are Mike and Jean Muckian in their blog Culturosity for Brava Magazine:

Here is what Greg Hettmansberger had to say in his “Classically Speaking” blog  for Madison Magazine:

And here is what Lindsay Christians had to say for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

One last PS: In case you looked at the orchestra pit and wondered about the five Steinways provided for The Five Browns: The Ear was told the pianos – two concert grands and three smaller grands – travel with the pianists. They are Steinway artists. And membership – along with best-selling siblingship – has its privileges.


Classical music review: Is there a better way to end a season than with Beethoven’s Ninth? Not if you judge by the outstanding success of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Is there a better way to end a classical music concert season than with Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony?

I don’t think so.

And it seems I am not alone.

At least not if you judge but the outstanding results of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Friday night in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

First off, the concert drew a rare sold-out house of about 1,000 – a large and appreciative audience that rose immediately to its feet for a prolonged, and well deserved, standing ovation at the end of the epic Beethoven work.

Music director and conductor Andrew Sewell put together a talented ensemble that featured an expanded orchestra, the Festival Choir of Madison combined with the newly formed Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Chorus plus four very talented and well-matched soloists (below): soprano Michelle Areyzaga; mezzo Jamie Van Eyck; tenor Robert Bracey; and bass-baritone Timothy Jones.

The program was pure Sewell, a New Zealand-born Anglophile and Francophile who likes to explores the edges of the known repertoire and is not afraid to venture beyond his ease with and mastery of the Classical-era style of Viennese masters Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. You almost always come away from a Sewell program with some new and unknown work in your mind and ears.

Before performing the Beethoven, one of the best-known works in the repertoire, he performed one of the least-well known: Gerald Finzi’s “Dies Natalis.” Composed in six movements, “The Day of Birth” cantata may sound more like a Christmas piece, but it proved perfectly suited to springtime as a the time of rebirth and renewal. Even a similar text about joy is close to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that Beethoven used in the final movement of his symphony.

Finzi writes haunting and poignant string parts; and the solo tenor part was delivered with immediacy and emotion, as well as great tone, by the tenor Robert Bracey (below left, with Sewell on the right).

Then, after intermission it was on to The Ninth.

One usually hears more massive forces perform the legendary Beethoven. But I found it refreshing to hear the smaller chamber orchestra and choruses. The texture had a clarity that allowed much more transparency in the call-and-response between different sections. The woodwinds particularly came through the strings, brass and percussion.

Most listeners focus on the choral ending, which always and justly impresses with its singing by soloists and chorus.

But this time I found the first movement absolutely riveting. By using a brisk tempo; by focusing of the rhythmic motif of the dotted note; and by using sharp attacks to emphasize the silence between dramatic chords and passages, Sewell (below) added dramatic cohesion to the first movement, something it often lacks. The first movement often seems to me to wander or meander; not this time. It possessed a tight structure and pulse that carried you along with its logic.

Make no mistake: The Ninth is a very hard work to perform — for conductor, for instrumentalists and for singers. There were a few moments that needed just a bit more something – more sharpness and punch in the opening measures of the scherzo, which can easily get away from the players; or even a bit more silky and songful lyricism in the adagio to set up the frenzied opening of the final movement. But those are very minor and subjective quibbles.

This was a deeply moving and convincing performance that marks a new era for the WCO, a performance that spoke to people. Beethoven and Schiller’s populist plea for brotherhood and joy seemed especially fitting, with the state Capitol in sight and with the upcoming recall elections looming – something Sewell couldn’t have known when he first programed it and when protestors filled the Capitol Square and the Capitol (below).

In any case, Beethoven’s Ninth is a BIG work. So this successful performance of it marked a milestone undertaking in the history of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which had never before performed it.

Now 11 seasons into his tenure, Sewell has brought the WCO to a new plateau. It is playing at a higher level. It is garnering more praise than ever before. It is performing in a home venue. It is booking terrific soloists. It is programming more ambitious works. And it is putting its stamp, through Sewell’s own distinctive philosophy of eclectic programming, on a very crowded local classical music scene.

That is a lot of joy to be celebrated.

And celebrated it was — at a season’s-end post-concert reception (below) but  mostly in the music itself.

Here are links to other reviews of the concert:

Here is John W. Barker’s for Isthmus:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review of 77 Square (The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times):

Here is Greg Hettmansberge;rs review Madison Magazine an this blog  “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for Channel 3000:

Classical music review: If you want to hear the difference between talent and genius, compare the music of John Field and Frederic Chopin — and thank the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

March 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, I went to the penultimate concert of this season by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater. (This season’s last Masterworks concert is at 8 p.m. on Friday April 13, and features Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.) In so many ways, it was an enjoyable event with an appropriate sense of occasion for Saint Patrick’s Day.

Under the baton of Andrew Sewell, the WCO (below) just keeps sounding better and better. And the audiences just seem to grow bigger and bigger, and more and more enthusiastic.

Clearly, the WCO is on the march, as its expanded next season shows:

I was particularly impressed with the performances of two well-known and frequently perform classics: Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. These are great works that received great performances.

The overture by the transitional Mendelssohn (below) had precise Classical-era part playing and a clarity of texture. Yet the evocative reading also had Romantic color. You could feel the ocean swells and the Scottish mystery, the dark, almost Gothic atmosphere of the seashore cave that the work was meant to convey.

In the “Haffner,” I was impressed by the muscularity of the Mozart (below). The very opening bars had sharp and strong attacks, and that sense of energy kept up right to the closing measures. I like grace and elegance, but not when it descends into music-box Mozart and preciousness. This reading was decidedly NOT music-box Mozart. It was hearty and robust as well as refined.

The WCO is clearly mastering the playing of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and they should include more of those masters on each program. Lord knows there are enough pieces by each to choose from given overtures, symphonies and concertos.

In between came other pieces on the “Celtic Celebration” theme chosen to mark St. Patrick’s Day and to bring us neglected works.

Granville Bantock’s “Celtic” Symphony for string orchestra and six – yep, six harps a harping — was a gratifying piece with some lively moments. But like Vaughan Williams, to whom Sewell aptly compared Bantock (below), it lacked depth and had major moments of lateral drift. The plainsong aspect of the harmony and the Celtic dance rhythms proved particularly captivating. All in all, it proved a rarity worth well unearthing and hearing.

That kind of creative and original programming has become typical of WCO music director Sewell (below).

The major work of the first half was a performance of Irish composer John Field’s rarely heard Piano Concerto No. 4 in E-Flat Major. One of seven concertos by Field (below), it was performed to perfection by the remarkable UW pianist Christopher Taylor, who was superbly accompanied by the orchestra.

On the radio, in a Q&A for this blog and in his playing, Taylor made a convincing case for reviving this curiosity. And it does have a certain period charm, especially in a kind of proto-Chopin way that is looser in form and feeling than the powerful and stricter, less lyrical Beethovenian and Germanic traditions.

After all, you may recall it was Field who pioneered the form of the piano nocturne that Chopin, 11 years his junior, later perfected.

But if you ever want to take the measure of the difference between someone who is talented and someone who is a genius, then just listen to Field and compare him to Chopin (below) — either nocturne-to-nocturne (at bottom), or concerto-to-concerto.

Chopin gives you heart-breaking and memorable melodies and harmonies that you carry with you out of the concert hall. Field’s music seems, sad to say, forgettable as soon as the playing is over. You are glad you heard it, but would you hear it again right away, would you go home and put on a recording of it? I suspect not.

Like Chopin’s writing, Field’s score uses a lot of notes in the passagework. And how they sparkled under virtuosic fingers of Taylor (below). But overall the concerto lacks substance and that bel canto sense of singing or vocal line that makes Chopin so irresistible and seductive.

In a museum or gallery, I find that looking at a great painting or photography makes me wish I could paint like that or use a camera tike that. I want to go out and make a painting or a photograph of my own.

Chopin does the same. His music makes me want to go home and play the piano, and especially his works.

Field, however, does not leave with the listener with that desire. I find myself, saying: OK, I’m glad I heard it, but once every 10 or 20 years is enough.

Chopin’s music simply has, and deserves, a much longer shelf life.

So I guess what I am saying is that I hope the WCO books Taylor again — this time in one of the two Chopin concertos, and probably No. 2, which is more suited to the chamber ensemble than No. 1, the concerto that actually was composed later on a bigger scale. But either would do the job nicely.

Now that would be something memorable indeed.

Anyway, here are links to the other reviews since you may wonder: What did the other critics in town have to say?

We pretty much agree, but we differ in what we make of our minor disagreements.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

Here is Mike and Jean Muckian’s review for the magazine Brava and their blog Culturosity:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians of the Wisconsin State Journal and 77 Square:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV’s Channel

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog Classically Speaking:

But every listener is his or her own critic.

So, what did you make of the works by John Field and Bantock?

What part of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Celtic Celebration” pleased you the most and why?

The Ear wants to hear.

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