The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and UW duo-pianists showcase the remarkable music of Camille Saint-Saens and Mozart in the popular concert that closes its season

June 1, 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 mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a  photo by Margaret Barker) closed its season Thursday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center with a promising and well-received program.

The centerpiece featured two graduate student soloists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, pianists Thomas Kasdorf (below right) and Satoko Hayami (below left), who joined in Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365, for two pianos and orchestra. The two soloists were alert and polished collaborators. (You can hear the energetic and catchy final movement, used in the Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Conductor Steve Kurr (below) set a bouncy pace but a rather fast and overpowering one, and with an orchestra — especially strings — quite overblown by the standards of Mozart’s day.

The MCO was blessed by the loan of a very special model of a Model B Steinway instrument, now owned and lovingly restored by Farley’s House of Pianos. This was paired against a Steinway of much later vintage, owned by the hall. But nowhere was there identification about which piano was which as they sat onstage, much less which pianist was playing which piano (and they switched between the two works utilizing them.) This was disappointing for it prevented making an informed comparison of the two instruments.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921, below) is backhandedly treated as being on the margins of composer greatness. But his scope was remarkable, as witnessed by the two works that were the program’s bookends.

The opener was his humorous Suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” This set of 14 short pieces was written for one private performance, in chamber terms, one player per part. So the orchestra that was used — of 87 listed musicians, 60 of them were string players — became a crushing distortion. The two pianists were a bit formal, but ideally facile.

Saint-Saens made no provision for any kind of spoken text, certainly not in French. In the middle of the last century, the American poet of high-spirited doggerel, Ogden Nash, wrote wickedly funny verses with offbeat rhymes and puns to go with each movement.

It was these Nash verses that Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below), who was only identified as the “narrator,” read with a good bit of tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere are these at all identified or credited in the bumbling program booklet.  (Many in the audience might have just thought that they were written by Gilliland himself.)

In many of the suite’s movements, Saint-Saens quoted or alluded to hit tunes by earlier composers, for parodistic purposes. Unfortunately, there are no program notes in the booklet, so these tidbits would easily go unnoticed by many listeners.

Saint-Saens composed, among his numerous orchestral works, a total of five symphonies, only three of which are numbered. I had originally been given to expect No. 2, a charming work I love, as the program closer. All but the last of them are early works in a graceful post-Classical style.

But No. 3 was composed much later in his life, and in a more expansive style. This is a frequently performed spectacle, unconventional in plan and in scoring. It adds the two pianists and an organ — hence the nickname the “Organ Symphony.”

Unfortunately, the hall has no organ of its own, so the substitute was a rig of electronic organ with its own booming speakers and exaggerated pedal notes. Again totally unmentioned is that this contraption was played by MCO sound technician Alex Ford (below, with the portable electronic organ keyboard from Austria with its computer-screen stops).

This kind of organ could never be integrated into the full orchestral texture and served only to allow the orchestra to play this grandiose score. Such ambition was backed by really splendid and well-balanced orchestral playing.

As intended, the large local audience, with many children and families, was wildly enthusiastic.


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Classical music: This Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the Oakwood Chamber Players finish their “Vignettes” season with an American audio-visual work and music by French, Italian and British composers

May 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Oakwood Chamber Players — known for highlighting neglected composers and works — perform the last concert of their current season series “Vignettes” with an array of contrasting and generally neglected works from the late 19th to 21st century.

Performances will take place on Saturday night, May 18, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday afternoon, May 19, at 2 p.m. Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Village Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students.

Members of the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) are: Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szyczs, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; and Maggie Townsend, cello.

They are joined by guest artists: Valree Casey, oboe; Hillary Hempel, violin; Michael Koszewski, percussion; Jason Kutz, piano; and Carrie Backman, conductor.

American composer Michael Gandolfi (below top) collaborated with MIT computer animator Jonathan Bachrach (below bottom) to create a unique musical and visual partnership for his Abridged History of the World in Seven Acts. Six instrumentalists create overlapping textures and rhythmic interplay in response to mesmerizing images.

Four French composers from the late 19th to mid-20th century are featured: The piano, four-hand “Dolly Suite” by Gabriel Fauré (below top) in an arrangement for woodwind quintet and piano; Petite Pièces (Small Pieces) for violin, horn and piano by his student Charles Koechlin (below middle; the sweetly engaging quartet Sérénade  (Serenade) by Reynaldo Hahn (below third)and five Pièces en Trio (Trio Pieces) for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Jacques Ibert (below bottom).

The Piano Trio in One Movement” by British composer Norman O’Neill (below) is full of verve and heart-felt melodies.

The woodwind quintet Piccolo Offerta Musicale” by noted Italian film composer Nino Rota (below), who wrote the scores for many films by Federico Fellini, is a short homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. (You can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years. They perform in other groups, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players.

For more information, go to www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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Classical music: Saturday afternoon, Live From the Met in HD closes this season with an acclaimed production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Here is a background story, two rave reviews, and next season’s 10 operas

May 10, 2019
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ALERT:The Brass Choirs of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras will present an afternoon of brass music this Saturday afternoon, May 11, at 2:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. Directed by Tom Curry, the program features brass musicians from WYSO’s Concert, Philharmonia and Youth Orchestras. The concert is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLC. Music to be played is by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Giovanni Gabrieli, Charles Gounod, Edward Elgar, Paul Hindemith, Alan Hovahaness and Karel Husa.

CORRECTION: The Madison Youth Choirs will perform its “Legacy” concerts this weekend in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center on Saturday and Sunday — NOT Friday, as mistakenly listed and then corrected in the original post, which is below: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/05/08/classical-music-the-madison-youth-choirs-will-explore-the-theme-of-legacy-in-three-concerts-this-saturday-and-sunday-in-the-capitol-theater-of-the-overture-center/

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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday afternoon, May 11, the last production of this season’s “Live From the Met in HD” series, broadcast worldwide via satellite to cinemas, is Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

By all accounts, it would be hard to end on a higher, stronger or more darkly dramatic note, given the outstanding music and performance of the score as well as the superb acting. (There is a brief preview of short scenes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The world premiere of the opera took place in 1957 at La Scala in Milan, Italy. One of the most successful operas of the later decades of the 20th century,  “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is a rare case of a modern work that is equally esteemed by audiences and experts, according to program notes from the Metropolitan Opera.

The opera focuses on a young member of the order of Carmelite nuns, the aristocratic Blanche de la Force, who must overcome a pathological timidity in order to answer her life’s calling. The score reflects key aspects of its composer’s personality: Francis Poulenc (below) was an urbane Parisian with a profound mystical dimension, and the opera addresses both the characters’ internal lives and their external realities.

The opera takes place between 1789 and 1794 in Paris and in the town of Compiègne in northeastern France, the site of the Carmelite nuns’ convent.

Its historical basis is the martyrdom of a group of 16 Carmelite nuns and lay sisters from Compiègne, who chose to offer themselves as victims for the restoration of peace to France during the French Revolution.

The Met uses the classic John Dexter production of Poulenc’s devastating story of faith and martyrdom.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (below right) sings the touching role of Blanche and soprano Karita Mattila (below left), a legend in her own time, returns to the Met as the Prioress.

The conductor for the performance is the Met’s highly acclaimed new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who also leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Orchestra of Montreal.

The high-definition broadcast of the live performance from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City starts at noon and runs until 3:10 p.m. with two intermissions. (It will also air at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio.)

The encore HD showings are next Wednesday, May 15, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The opera will be sung in French with supertitles in English, German and Spanish.

Tickets for Saturday broadcasts are $24 for adults and $22 for seniors and children under 13. For encore showings, all tickets are $18.

The cinemas where the opera can be seen are two Marcus Cinemas: the Point Cinema on the far west side of Madison (608 833-3980) and the Palace Cinema (608 242-2100) in Sun Prairie.

Here is a link to the Marcus website for addresses and more information. You can also use them to purchase tickets:

https://www.movietickets.com/movies

Here is a link to the Metropolitan Opera’s website where you can find the titles, dates, casts, production information and video clips of all 10 productions this past season — PLUS an announcement, with dates and titles, for next season’s 10 productions (which feature five new productions but no Verdi):

https://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/

Here is a background story that focuses on the French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who leads the orchestra in this production and is the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/arts/music/met-opera-dialogues-des-carmelites.html

Here is a rave review of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/05/arts/music/dialogues-des-carmelites-met-opera-review.html

And here is another rave review from New York Classical Review:

http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2019/05/met-closes-season-with-a-riveting-devastating-carmelites/

Here are links to a synopsis and program notes:

https://www.metopera.org/discover/synopses/dialogues-des-carmelites/

https://www.metopera.org/season/2018-19-season/dialogues-des-carmelites/

And here is a Wikipedia history of the hi-def broadcast series that gives you more information about how many cinemas it uses, the enormous size of the worldwide audience – now including Russia, China and Israel — and how much money it makes for The Met.

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


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Combining a ticket to a live music performance with a book or recording that is tied to the concert’s program makes a great holiday gift

December 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays seem to arrive earlier each year.

The Ear isn’t sure why that is.

Whatever the reason, a lot of holiday gift shopping can by now seem last-minute and somewhat frantic.

But if you are shopping for a classical music fan, you are in luck if you go local.

The best way to please the recipient and also to support the local arts is to give a ticket to a live concert – always the most powerful and exciting musical experience — perhaps coupled to a related book or recording. (Below is UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in a photo by Michael R. Anderson).

This blog doesn’t have room to list separately all the many musical groups in the area. But here are some samples that might interest you.

Through Monday, Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is once again offering a special deal for the remainder of the season. Tickets to both the “Beyond the Score” program and the remaining four season concerts, including Mahler’s mammoth “Symphony of a Thousand,” have been reduced to two price ranges: $10 and $25 for the former; $25 and $50 for the latter.

For more information, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/holiday-tickets-sale/

If you want to see what other performers and presenters are offering – say, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Overture Center and the Madison Opera, to name just a few of the more prominent names – just go to Google and type in their name to search and go to their home page on the web.

Many of them have all sorts of other discounts for students, seniors, subscribers, groups and others.

Don’t forget that Madison features many FREE concerts, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

True, a few of the most attractive and gift-worthy UW concerts are ticketed ($17 for adults, $7 for UW students) – including the annual Schubertiade, the yearly recital by pianist Christopher Taylor and the world premiere of the new Viola Sonata by John Harbison (below). But you could offer to take someone to a free chamber music or orchestral concert and provide companionship, transportation and maybe even dinner.

Here is a link to the very busy lineup and informative previews at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: https://www.music.wisc.edu

To top it off, you could add one of two outstanding local books The Ear puts at the top of the holiday gift guide.

The first is John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach” (below top) which is short, very readable, thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative in an autobiographical way that helps us celebrate both the 80th birthday of Harbison and the upcoming 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The second book, now in its second printing, is a comprehensive history of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) done by John W. Barker, who often writes for this blog as well as Isthmus.

Of course, a CD with one of the composers or works on a program also makes a fine complement, whether it is a Mahler symphony, a Bach suite or Schubert’s “Swan Songs” from his final year.

Finally, The Ear wants to know: What are your suggestions for a for holiday gift of classical music?

It could be a live concert or a recording, either something new or an old favorite.

It could be a particularly informative and enjoyable or entertaining book, including biographies of Leonard Bernstein (including one by his daughter Jamie Bernstein, below), whose centennial has been celebrated this season.

Over the next few days, The Ear will post suggestions  and Top 10 lists by professional critics. But in the end, it is the audience, the ordinary public, that many people want to hear from.

So perhaps you will leave your ideas in the COMMENT section.

Thank you! And have Happy Holidays — a Merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year.


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Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
1 Comment

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.


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Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNMIgZAx2gQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2jAweLVLRk

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.


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

December 12, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A truly rewarding concert!


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