The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is World Piano Day. Why do you love the piano? Do you have a favorite piano piece? A favorite pianist? Something to say about taking piano lessons? Want to thank your piano teacher? The Ear wants to hear

March 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Saturday, March 28, 2020 – is World Piano Day.

The international celebration is fitting because today happens to be Day 88 of the year – a timely parallel to the fact that most pianos have 88 keys.

Here is a link to the official website with a list of international events and other links to playlists of piano music on SoundCloud and Spotify: https://www.pianoday.org

Here is a link to the virtual live streaming piano festival — starting at 3 p.m. Central European Time (CET), which is 6 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time or at 9 a.m. CDT) — by the record label  Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-news/deutsche-grammophon-world-piano-day-livestream/


A lot of us took piano lessons.

So today seems like a good occasion to say something about the role of the piano in your life.

Why do you love the piano? The sound? The physical act of playing? The vast repertoire?

Maybe you want to mention a specific piano piece that made a difference in your life, as the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, by Chopin did for The Ear. (You can hear Arthur Rubinstein play it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Maybe you have a favorite piano piece or piano composer you like to listen to?

Maybe you wished you had stopped lessons earlier or continued them longer?

Would you like to say thank you to your piano teacher?

Maybe you have memories – good or bad — of a recital you gave?

Who is your favorite pianist from the past – maybe Van Cliburn or Vladimir Horowitz (below), Sviatoslav Richter or Dame Myra Hess?

Which pianist today would you recommend to others? Daniil Trifonov or Haochen Zhang, Simone Dinnerstein (below) or Maria Joao Pires?

Those suggestions hardly exhaust the possibilities. So be creative and leave a Comment with a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: This Saturday night, the Con Vivo woodwind quintet makes its debut. Plus, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs a variety of chamber music

February 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Valentine’s Day weekend is turning out to be a popular time for concerts. Here are two more performances on this coming Saturday night:

CON VIVO

Con Vivo!, or “Music With Life,” continues its 18th season of chamber music concerts with the inaugural performance of CVQ, the Con Vivo woodwind quintet (below).

The concert will take place this Saturday night, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., across from Camp Randall Stadium.

Tickets can be purchased at the door for $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

Convenient free parking is only 2 blocks west at the University Foundation, 1848 University Ave.

The debut concert will include music — no specific titles have been named — by Aaron Copland, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Gyorgy Ligeti and Ludwig van Beethoven. The woodwind quintet comprises flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn.

Says Con Vivo’s artistic director Robert Taylor: “We continue our season with our newest members joining forces to perform pieces for the woodwind quintet genre, providing new sounds for our audiences. We are excited to add these fabulous musicians to our group. This concert will be a great way to shake off those winter blues!”

Con Vivo (below) is a professional chamber music ensemble comprised of Madison area musicians assembled from the ranks of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and various other performing groups familiar to Madison audiences.

For more information, go to: convivomusicwithlife.org

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will perform a concert of baroque chamber music this Saturday night, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Players include: Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Chelsie Propst, soprano; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello and viola da gamba; Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord; and Anton TenWolde, baroque cello and viola da gamba.

Tickets at the door only are: $20, $10 for students.

The program includes:

François Couperin – Pieces for viol, Suite No. 1 (You can hear the Prelude, played by Jordi Savall, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre  – Cantata “Jacob and Rachel”

Pietro Castrucci – Sonata No. 3 for recorder and basso continuo

Jean-Baptiste Barriere – Adagio from Sonata No. 2 for cello and basso continuo, Book 1

Marin Marais – Chaconne 83 from Pieces for Viol, Book 5

Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana – “Veni dulcissime Domine” (Come, Sweet Lord)

Girolamo Frescobaldi  – Toccata No. 8, Partita on the Aria of Monicha (1637)

Unico van Wassenaer – Sonata No. 2 for recorder and basso continuo

Johann Michael Nicolai –Sonata for Three Viola da Gambas in D major

For more information, go to: www.wisconsinbaroque.org

 


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Classical music: The UW Choral Union, UW Symphony Orchestra and guest soloists took the audience on a memorable musical voyage in Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”

January 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It took a postponement of almost two months before the UW Choral Union (below) finally got to perform last Saturday night in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center.

But the wait was worth it.

The combined forces – conducted by the retiring choral director Beverly Taylor – proved convincing and accomplished in the challenging score of “A Sea Symphony” by the early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The performers did justice to the score’s vivid sound painting. You could hear the sea wind whistling through the rigging; you could feel the ship plowing through the swells and waves.

The American poet Walt Whitman (below) – whose epic-like poetry provided the text for this ambitious nautical and musical journey – would have been proud of the performance.

After all, like Whitman’s poetry, Vaughn Williams’ music — his first symphony — can be forceful and spacious at many moments, tender and reflective or even intimate at other times. The music matches the text, and the performers matched both.

The forces were precise under Taylor’s baton, with sharp attacks and no ragged stopping. True, there were a few moments when the balance seemed a bit off, when the UW Symphony Orchestra overpowered the large campus and community chorus, especially in the very brassy and thickly scored first movement. You just wanted to hear the words better and felt frustrated not to.

But for the most part, though, the student orchestra proved impressive. They were tight and crisp, accurate and transparent, allowing listeners to hear the inner part playing and even certain modernist harmonies of the generally conservative Vaughan Williams (below).

Moreover, the symphony, the chorus and the soloists blended especially well and movingly in the symphony’s quieter moments.

Those moments included the second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone”; and the quiet, understated ending where the idea of voyage and exploration becomes personal and metaphorical or spiritual as well as literal: “Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me … O my brave soul! O farther, farther sail!”

(You can hear a sample in the hymn-like opening of the fourth movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition, the outstanding acoustics of the new hall – where the chorus sits above and behind the orchestra – brought the performance to life even more convincingly.

There were two soloists (below): soprano Chelsie Propst and baritone James Harrington.

Harrington possessed a pleasing tone, but he seemed to be holding back for some reason. He could have projected more confidence and been more energetic or assertive in his delivery. After all, neither Whitman nor Vaughan Williams is shy in this large-scale work.

Curiously, it was the woman soloist, Propst, who roared like the sea, whose big voice easily soared over the orchestra and chorus. Her singing was thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.

Unfortunately, the very successful concert was not sold out, but the audience proved attentive and very enthusiastic.

This debut performance in the new hall made one look forward all the more to another big piece and big performance by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra, one that will wrap up the season and end Taylor’s long tenure at the UW-Madison: the dramatic and operatic Requiem by Verdi on Saturday and Sunday, April 25 and 26.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform a mini-opera version of “A Christmas Carol” this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

December 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Over several deuces, the Oakwood Chamber Players have built a solid reputation for their top-notch performances of unusual and neglected repertoire.

So it comes as no surprise that the group will offer one of the newer, more unusual and promising takes on the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Twice this weekend, the Madison-based, widely experienced musical theater actor and baritone Robert A. Goderich reprises his tour-de-force performance, last done in 2016, of Charles Dickens’ characters for the Oakwood Chamber Players’ presentation of the mini-opera “The Passion of Scrooge” by New York composer Jon Deak.

A dozen musicians, including ensemble members with special guest artists, provide the platform for Goderich’s characterizations on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m.

The concerts take place at Oakwood Village University Woods Auditorium at 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are available at the door and are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Go to https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Members of the ensemble for this program are: Marilyn Chohaney (flute), Nancy Mackenzie (clarinet), Anne Aley (horn), Elspeth Stalter Clouse (violin) and Maggie Darby Townsend (cello), and guest musicians Hillary Hempel (violin), Emma Cifrino (viola), Brad Townsend (bass), Mike Koszewski (percussion), and Margaret Mackenzie (harp).

Over the past two decades, New York Philharmonic bassist and composer Jon Deak (below) has created a variety of “concert dramas” that tell stories through words and sound. 

Performed annually at the Smithsonian, this two-act musical setting re-imagines Ebenezer Scrooge’s struggle to transform his past, present and future from a life of avarice to warmth and humanity.

As singer and narrator, Goderich, who plays all the parts, is the focal point; but the composer has given the instrumentalists an integral part in the story line, too. Conductor Kyle Knox (below) leads the ensemble through many facets of this humorous work filled with dramatic effects.

Deak requires the musicians to be nimble performers, juggling melodic lines while interjecting entertaining sounds into Dickens’ traditional tale. You can hear the opening introduction by the Storyteller in the YouTube video at the bottom.

One of the score’s important aspects is the varied use of percussion, which provides a broad range of instruments and sound effects. Audiences can enjoy both the aural and visual artistry of chains rattling, doors creaking and footsteps echoing in this holiday classic.

Additionally, the Oakwood Chamber Players will perform a suite of British reels and carols, including songs mentioned in the text of Dickens’ original story.

For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his first employer Fezziwig, a fiddler plays the tune “Sir Roger De Coverley.” This Scottish-English country dance, arranged by composer Frank Bridge in 1922, is one of the tunes providing an engaging introduction to “The Passion of Scrooge.”

 


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this coming Saturday night

December 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, the Madison Bach Musicians will present its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in  2014, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer).

The concert, using period instruments and historically informed performance practices, is again at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium. A pre-concert lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson is at 7:15 p.m. followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

Advance-sale tickets are $35 at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy St. Co-op (East and West). Online advance-sale tickets are available at https://madisonbachmusicians.org. Tickets at the door at $38 for general admission and $35 for seniors. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture.

The program features masterworks by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Torelli which, in their appealing Baroque way, explore the fusion of celebration, reflection and ultimate renewal often felt as the year’s end approaches.

MBM welcomes baroque trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci (below), who will show how wonderfully vintage brass resounds in the magnificent Old World acoustics of the church.

Other performers are: Ariadne Lih, soprano (below); Lindsey Meekhof, alto; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Michael Hawes, bass; Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Micah Behr, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

Here are a couple of fun facts, provided by Stephenson, about each piece on the program.

Sound the Trumpet, by Henry Purcell (1659−1695, below)
1. This piece was composed in 1694, the year before Purcell died at the age of just 36. It is part of a birthday ode — Come Ye Sons of Art, Away! — for Queen Mary II of England, wife of King James II.
2. There is no trumpet in it at all, but the two voices implore the trumpet to play and they emulate trumpet-style writing with long, swelling notes mixed in with brilliant decorative flourishes.


Trumpet Concert in D major 
by Giuseppe Torelli (1658−1709, below)
1. Torelli was one of the most prolific trumpet composers of all time.
2. The baroque trumpet has no valves and is designed to play in one tonality at a time. Favorite baroque keys were D major and C major.

Comfort Ye and Every Valley from Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (1685−1759, below)
1. After the instrumental Overture to Messiah, this Recitative and Aria are the work’s first sung pieces.
2. Handel was 56 years old when he composed Messiah in 1741 in London; the work was premiered, however, in Dublin in 1742, much to the chagrin of Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

Cantata BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exult in God in Every Land), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685−1750, below)
1. Composed around 1730, this is one of the very few Bach cantatas requiring only one singer.
2. In Bach’s Leipzig church, where the work was probably first heard, the soloist would have been either a male falsettist (or castrato) or an exceptionally skilled boy soprano.

Contrapunctus XIX and Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I stand), from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, by J.S. Bach
1. According to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), this fugue is the last piece his father wrote — though scholars hotly contest this claim.
2. In measure 195, Bach’s own name appears suddenly as a musical motive: B (B-flat in the German scale) – A – C – H (B natural) and the fugue has no ending but simply trails off in measure 239.

Grosser Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, O Powerful King) from Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248, by J.S. Bach
1. It features dance-like melodic figures in dialogue between trumpet and solo bass voice. (Heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
2. Text celebrates the birth of the savior, which makes the powers of the Earth irrelevant.

Cantata BWV 196, Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us),by J.S. Bach
1. With its textual focus on blessings (from Psalm 115), the work is likely a wedding cantata.
2. Written probably when Bach was only 22 years old, the work is absolutely perfect in its structure and easy concision; its high-energy but quiet final cadence has a curiously modern, neo-Classical charm that might have made Stravinsky smile.

Chorale: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus),from Cantata, BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life)by J.S. Bach
1. The famous opening figure in the strings is really just Bach’s ingenious obligato lead-in to a chorale tune that parishioners in his church would have instantly recognized.
2. This work has enjoyed tremendous popularity as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” since it was arranged for one and then two pianos in 1926 and 1934 respectively by English pianist Myra Hess. It has since been arranged for myriad combinations of instruments and voices.


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: World-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai will teach and perform two FREE concerts with students and the Pro Arte Quartet during her UW residency today and Thursday

October 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as Viola Week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music — a chance to celebrate the gorgeous, mellow sound of a frequently but unjustly maligned instrument (below) the range of which falls between the higher violin and the lower cello.

The world-famous Japanese violist Nobuko Imai (below) is returning to the UW-Madison campus this week for a two-day residency where she will give master classes and perform.

Imai will be joined by two other distinguished guest violists, both Taiwanese: Wei-Ting Kuo (below top, in a photo by Todd Rosenberg) now of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and formerly the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; and En-Chi Cheng (below bottom), a prize-winning, concertizing student of Imai now studying at the Juilliard School.

For detailed biographies of all three violists  go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/nobuko-imai-with-wei-ting-kuo-and-the-uw-madison-viola-studio/

The violists will give two FREE concerts in the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Avenue.

At 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Collins Recital Hall, Nobai and the two other guest artists will perform with viola students at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. No program has been given for them. Nobuko will also perform a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach with UW-Madison collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below).

Then at NOON tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 31, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform the melodious “American” Viola Quintet by Antonin Dvorak with Imai. (You can hear the second movement of the Dvorak quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

In addition to a viola arrangement of the “Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals, Imai will perform the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Trio in C Major for Two Oboes and English Horn, Op. 87, with Wei-Ting Kuo and Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below, second from right). 


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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