The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
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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 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com

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Classical music: The 150th anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth will be celebrated with two concerts on this coming Sunday afternoon and Monday night in Spring Green. They feature the world premiere of a work commissioned from Madison-based composer Scott Gendel.

August 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Effi Casey, the director of music at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green, writes:

“I am writing to you to let you know about special concerts at Taliesin on Sunday, Aug. 6, at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., which I will direct in the Hillside Theater at Taliesin.

“The concerts are a collaboration of Taliesin Preservation and Rural Musicians Forum as part of the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (below).

“I commissioned UW-Madison prize-winning graduate Scott Gendel to write “That Which Is Near,” a piece for choir, string quartet and piano, and we have enjoyed working on it. (NOTE: Gendel will discuss his work in more detail in tomorrow’s posting on this blog.) It will receive its world premiere at these two concerts.

“Other works to be performed include: “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland; “Past Life Melodies” by Sarah Hopkins; the spiritual “Ev’ry Time I Feel de Spirit”; “Hymn to Nature” (from the Wright-inspired opera “Shining Brow,” which is the English translation of the Welsh word “Taliesin” and stands for the hillside location) by UW-Madison graduate Daron Hagen; “Song of Peace” by Jean Sibelius”; and the “Sanctus” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the Mass in B Minor) by Johann Sebastian Bach and spoken words.

“The participation and enthusiasm of the singers of the greater Spring Green community are most rewarding already.

TICKETS

“Tickets are available on-line at RuralMusiciansForum.org. Please see the “Purchase Tickets Here” link to Brown Paper Tickets on the right-hand side of the RMF home page.

“Alternatively, tickets can be purchased at the Arcadia Bookstore in downtown Spring Green.

“Ticket prices range from $15 to $30. The $30 tickets for the Sunday Aug. 6 concert include concert admission and a festive champagne post-concert reception with composer Scott Gendel, the musicians and the chorus.

“Tickets for the concert only on Aug. 6 or 7 are $20 or $15 for seniors and students. Children 12 and under are free, but please pick up a free ticket for them to be sure they get a seat at the concert.” (Below is the Hillside Theater.)

WRIGHT AND MUSIC

To The Ear, a special concert seems the perfect way to mark the Wright sesquicentennial.

Just take a look, thanks to research by Effi Casey (below), at what Wright himself said and thought about music:

“… Never miss the idea that architecture and music belong together. They are practically one.” (FLW)

“While Wright claimed architecture as the “mother art,” his experience in music was early, visceral, and eternal. Of his childhood he wrote: “…father taught him (the boy) to play (the piano). His knuckles were rapped by the lead pencil in the impatient hand that would sometimes force his hand into position at practice time on the Steinway Square in the sitting room. But he felt proud of his father too. Everybody listened and seemed happy when father talked on Sundays when he preached, the small son dressed in his home-made Sunday best, looked up at him, absorbed in something of his own making that would have surprised the father and the mother more than a little if they could have known.”(FLW’s Autobiography).

“In his later years, Wright himself preached musical integration in his own Sunday talks to the Fellowship:

“Of all the fine arts, (Wright exclaimed in a Sunday morning talk to his apprentices) music it was that I could not live without – as taught by my father. (I) found in it (a) sympathetic parallel to architecture. Beethoven and Bach were princely architects in my spiritual realm…”

“But more than words, it was in practice where he conveyed music to those in his sphere, from a piano designed into a client’s home (for someone who may or may not have been able to play it!), to his own score of concert grand pianos at the two Taliesins (he claimed “the piano plays me!”).

“In a gesture of delight and exuberance, as it is told by those who experienced it, Wright had a gramophone player installed at the top of his Romeo and Juliet tower (below is the rebuilt tower) at Taliesin to have Bach’s Mass in B Minor resound over the verdant hills and valleys.

Adds Casey: “Architecture is indeed a musical parallel of composition, rhythm, pattern, texture, and color. As Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an “edifice of sound” (FLW) built upon the famous first eight notes, so Wright’s overture of verse expresses a singular IDEA, played in stone, wood, and concrete, from superstructure to matching porcelain cup.”

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