The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed a cappella vocal ensemble Cantus performs a world premiere in Edgerton this Saturday night

March 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

“Cantus: Inspiring Through Song“ will perform in concert this coming Saturday night, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Edgerton Performing Arts Center, 200 Elm High Drive in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

In its 2017-18 touring program “Discovery of Sight,” the a cappella ensemble Cantus (below) explores the essence of light and vision, reveling in the mystery, science and poetry of what it means to truly “see” with music.

The program features works by Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Eric Whitacre (below top) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (below middle, in a  photo by Getty Images) alongside a world premiere by Gabriel Kahane (below bottom).

Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased online at or by phone at (608) 561-6093.

Praised as “engaging” by the New Yorker magazine, the men’s vocal ensemble Cantus is widely known for its trademark warmth and blending, and for its innovative programming and involving performances of music ranging from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

The Washington Post has hailed the Cantus sound as having both “exalting finesse” and “expressive power,” and refers to the “spontaneous grace” of its music making.

As one of the nation’s few full-time vocal ensembles, Cantus has grown in prominence with its distinctive approach to creating music. Working without a conductor, the members of Cantus rehearse and perform as chamber musicians, each contributing to the entirety of the artistic process.

Cantus performs more than 60 concerts each year both in national and international touring, and in its home of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Cantus has performed at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, UCLA, San Francisco Performances, Atlanta’s Spivey Hall, and Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.

You can hear Cantus perform a Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio (NPR) in the YouTube video at the bottom. The Ear is especially fond of the way they sing “Wanting Memories.”

For more information about Cantus, go to the ensemble’s website:

The performance is funded by the William and Joyce Wartmann Endowment for the Performing Arts.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018

FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.

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Classical music: Want to know about Chinese classical music composers in our time? Read this story about the six-day Juilliard festival that starts today

January 19, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music – like everything else in China – has undergone momentous changes over the past few decades.

The importance of Western classical music in contemporary China is not seen only through the construction of new conservatories and opera houses; or through the many outstanding instrumentalists, especially pianists such as Lang Lang, Yundi Li, Haochen Zhang and Sa Chen, who have won prizes in Western competitions and become major performers.

Chinese composers have also left their mark, as the Juilliard School in New York City will prove over six days, starting today, during this year’s “Focus” festival.

One such older composer is Chou Wen Chung (below, in a photo by Andrew Reneissen for The New York Times).

A much younger composer is Chen Lin (below in a photo by Dawes Li).

You will find some but not a lot of their music on YouTube – yet.

But The Ear bets that many of the 33 Juilliard performances will soon find their way to social media.

Anyway, here is a link to the comprehensive preview in The New York Times, which also features some sound and video samples.

Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform rarely heard repertoire this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

January 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Horizon on this Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m.

As the group often does, it will present a program of old and new works by composers who are rarely heard or performed.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the city’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. Visit for more information.

Sunset 1892 by Michael Mikulka is a musical interpretation of a painting by influential American landscape artist George Inness. (Below is another sunset painting, “Sunset Montclair – 1892,” by George Inness, whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.)

The pastoral colors are represented musically in an evocative manner by the warm timbres of the clarinet and the viola interwoven with pianistic light and shadow. An emerging American composer, Mikulka (below) saw his piece win the grand prize in a 2008 competition. (You can hear it, and see the original inspiration, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serenade for Five Instruments by Italian composer Alfredo Casella (below) was written for a music composition contest in 1927. It nimbly combines the contrasting sounds of the clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, and cello. His musical style is attributed in part to the influence of his avid appreciation for visual art.

This piece was one of the composer’s favorites and is a delightful work with five short contrasting movements that range from lilting to witty to sweetly melodic. Casella studied with Gabriel Faure and was film composer Nino Rota’s composition teacher. (Rota is famous and most familiar for his soundtracks for movies by Federico Fellini, but he also composed a lot of outstanding chamber music.)

Quintet for Winds and Piano by Swiss composer Hans Huber (below) was premiered in 1918 and written for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Listeners will perceive the influence of Brahms and Schumann in his Romantic style. However, Huber definitely shows individual flair in his approach. The four-movement work is spirited and captivating, and features each of the instruments over the course of the composition with an obvious talent for virtuosic piano writing throughout its entirety.

Guest instrumentalists are Jason Kutz, piano (below); Ariel Garcia, viola; and Halie Brown, trumpet.

The members of the Oakwood Chamber Players (above) are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the third of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have played with other ensembles such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

Classical music: NPR explores Opus 1 works to mark Jan. 1 and New Year’s Day

January 3, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, the media look for new ways to mark the holidays and especially New Year’s Day.

One of the best and most original The Ear has seen and heard in a long time came from National Public Radio (NPR).

On Morning Edition, the radio network consulted Miles Hoffman (below), a violist, conductor and educator, about the first works – the Opus 1 works – that various composers published.

Hoffman’s remarks touch on quite a few young composers and prodigies, including Ludwig van Beethoven (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below middle) and Ernst von Dohnanyi (below bottom).

Here is a link to the story, which should be listened to, and not just read, for the sake of the music and sound samples:

And from YouTube here are two more Opus 1 works that The Ear would add.

The first is the Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, by a young Frédéric Chopin (below, in a drawing from Getty Images) and performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. It shows just how early Chopin had found his own style and his own distinctive voice:

And here are the “Abegg” Variations by critic-turned-composer Robert Schumann (below), played by Lang Lang:

Can you think of other Opus 1 works to add to the list?

Please leave the composer’s name, the work’s title and a YouTube link to a performance, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Today is New Year’s Day 2018. The annual concert from Vienna airs this morning from 10 to noon on Wisconsin Public Radio and then tonight from 8 to 9:30 on Wisconsin Public Television. Here are details, background and the playlist

January 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

No event in classical music has become more iconic than the annual New Year’s Day concert given in Vienna’s luxurious Golden Hall by the Vienna Philharmonic under a guest conductor.

It may be predictable and repetitive, but it surely is beloved. The broadcast reaches 50 million listeners and viewers in more than 90 countries.

The concert, which is always heavy on Strauss family waltzes , polkas and marches as well as some music by other composers from that era, will first air this morning from 10 a.m. to noon CST on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Then later tonight it will add pictures and more  — scenic landscapes, royal interiors, classic architecture, a celebrity narrator and dance interpretations by the Vienna City Ballet — when it airs again from 8 to 9:30 p.m. CST on Wisconsin Public Television.

The guest conductor this year is Riccardo Muti (below), the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Here is some background from Vienna:

Here is the complete program or playlist from WQXR-FM in New York City:

And here, with sound samples, is a list of the distinguished conductors who have led the event over 30 years. Find your favorites and relive some memories:

Here is more background on the television broadcast, part of PBS’ “Great Performances” series which will be hosted for the first time by Hugh Bonneville (below, in a photo by Nick Briggs) of “Downton Abbey” fame. He succeeds Walter Cronkite and Julie Andrews.

And here is background from the “Great Performances” website:

You can also consult the German-language YouTube video at the bottom.

If you want to relive this year’s experience, the CDs and DVDs will be available very shortly from Sony.

Classical music: Bach Around the Clock 2018 will be March 10. Here is a year-end update with impressive news and important changes

December 28, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, who last March successfully revived Bach Around the Clock after Wisconsin Public Radio dropped it five years ago, has sent the following year-end update that is full of impressive news, including this year’s date and a smart change of hours to 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of noon to midnight:

“Bach Around The Clock,” the annual community celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), exceeded all expectations in 2017.

“Approximately 80 performers were seen by almost 600 audience members. The performers ranged from beginning students (below top is a photo of the Suzuki Strings of Madison) to adult amateurs (below bottom is amateur pianist Tim Adrianson) to seasoned professionals including the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and the Madison Bach Musicians.

“The audience ran from around 300 persons at the church to 267 live-stream viewers, some from as far away as London, England.

“BATC gratefully acknowledges the valuable support received from Early Music America (EMA). In registering as a Partner of Early Music Month (an EMA initiative), BATC joined nearly 270 individual and organization Partners across the country whose events during the month of March were showcased on EMA’s website and social media.

“The enthusiastic Madison community response to BATC 2017 furnished strong supporting materials for an application for EMA’s coveted Outreach Grant. BATC, one of five organizations to win the award, received $500 and national recognition.

“As artistic director, I flew to Boston in June to attend the award ceremony, presided over by EMA Executive Director Ann Felter (below).  The award will help cover the cost of the sound engineers who record and live-stream the 2018 event.

“While in Boston Marika was able to consult extensively with harpsichordist and internationally recognized Bach scholar Raymond Erickson (below), who kindly offered insights and perspective on how to build a successful Bach festival.

“BATC 2018 — to mark Bach’s 333rd birthday — is scheduled for Saturday, March 10, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., again at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), 1833 Regent Street. Local luminaries will again take shifts as onstage emcees.

“The program will open once again with individuals and ensembles from the St. Andrew’s congregation, and continue with musicians from the Madison community and far beyond.

“In 2017, BATC attracted performers (below) from Milwaukee, Dubuque, Oshkosh and Chicago. For 2018 we’ve already been contacted by a pianist from North Carolina who wants to come perform The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. It’s safe to say that the festival’s impact has expanded!

“New this year is the Ensemble-In-Residence, Sonata à Quattro, which will perform as a featured ensemble, and also play a supporting role for singers wanting to perform an aria, or solo instrumentalists wanting to play a concerto. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the gorgeous slow movement of the Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor.)

Led by violinist Kangwon Kim (below), the core ensemble includes strings and harpsichord, and will add obbligato instruments as necessary. Sonata à Quattro will also offer a Fringe Concert during the Madison Early Music Festival at the UW-Madison in July.

“Partner organizations this year will include EMA, as well as the UW Chazen Museum of Art, where BATC ensembles will perform a preview concert on March 4, on the “Sunday Afternoon Live” series.  Radio interviews on WORT-FM 89.9 and Wisconsin Public Radio are also in the works. Details will be announced in the coming weeks.

“St. Andrew’s will again make their beautifully remodeled Parish Hall available as a place for performers and audience members to enjoy refreshments, fellowship, restrooms, comfortable couches, and free wi-fi. Many thanks are due to the church staff and congregation, for providing BATC with a home.

“BATC is also in the process of establishing its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which should help secure donations and funding. Completion of this process is expected in the next week or so, and will be announced on the BATC website and Facebook page.

“In addition, a board of directors is also being assembled, which should help ensure the survival on BATC by sharing the workload and responsibilities.”

Here is a link to the website, which has other links and information:

Classical music: Here are the Top 20 classical recordings of 2017 as chosen by famed radio station WQXR

December 14, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

As he has done in previous years, this year The Ear is offering various compendiums of the best classical recordings from the past year.

Such lists are, of course, subjective.

But many of the “judges” have a vast experience with classical music and are worth listening to and at least considering.

The lists can give you an idea of new artists and trends as well as of new releases of famous artists and tried-and-true repertoire.

So far, The Ear has offered the nominees for Grammy Awards. But that list is chosen by the industry.

Here is a link to that Grammy list:

The famed New York City radio station WQXR seems more objective and less commercial, although you will find well known veteran artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeny Kissin mixed in with newcomers such as pianist Beatrice Rana (below).

The genres and periods are quite mixed too, going from early music to new music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov.

Similarly, the list has familiar labels and small, relatively unknown labels.

The list could serve as a guide to what you want to give as a gift or what you want to receive as a gift.

But you can also take the list just as more information about the classical music scene, which is under-reported in the mainstream media.

In addition, each of the 20 selections features the CD album cover and a sound sample of the recording and a compact explanation of what makes the performance exceptional or outstanding.

Here is a link:

Hope you enjoy it.

Use the COMMENT section to let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with the choices.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

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