The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here is how the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) plan to continue lessons and performances this fall despite the coronavirus pandemic

August 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has just received the following updates from an email newsletter about the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Over more than 50 years, WYSO has served tens of thousands of middle school and high school students in southcentral Wisconsin and northern Illinois. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the WYSO Youth Orchestra play a virtual performance from the past season of the famous finale from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture.)

After many weeks of planning, and in consultation with Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) and the McFarland School District, WYSO is excited to announce a fall semester plan that will mark a safe return to in-person music-making—and our first season at the McFarland Performing Arts Center (below) https://www.wysomusic.org/the-wyso-weekly-tune-up-april-17-2020-wysos-new-home/

We had a brief delay last Friday when PHMDC released Emergency Statement #9 delaying in-person start dates for all schools in Dane County. We checked in with the Public Health agency and they re-affirmed that WYSO is not a school —and the 15 students maximum-sized groups outlined in this plan are absolutely perfect. It is time to set up the tents!

The WYSO season will begin on the weekend of Sept. 5, when the winds and brass students from all three full orchestras (Youth, Philharmonia and Concert) will begin their fall rehearsals outside under two enormous tents in the McFarland High School parking lot (below). The 60 winds and brass students will be divided into approximately nine or 10 cohorts, who will meet in two-hour blocks on Saturdays and Sundays.

With a single cohort of masked and socially distanced students spread out within the 40′ x 60′ tent, with “bell covers and bags” for their instruments, the season will not look like any previous WYSO Fall.

If you’ve not been involved in the new science of aerosol transmission, this whole scenario might seem very curious. The reasoning is simple: The winds and brass instruments have been singled out as more problematic since you have to blow into them to make music. The blowing releases more “aerosols,” the tiny droplets that can transmit the coronavirus.

However, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have recently released the first results from a five-month study and have found that the following actions bring down the transmission risk considerably:

  1. Social distancing 9 to 15 feet apart.
  2. Adding bell covers and bags (below) for the instruments (essentially the instruments have to wear masks as well as the students).
  3. Playing outside, which reduces risks due to the increased air circulation.

Because we are in Wisconsin, the “outdoor” location shortens the season for the winds and brass players so by beginning the season on Sept. 5 and ending on the weekend of Oct. 24, they can just squeeze in an 8-week cycle.

Meanwhile, the WYSO string and percussion players, approximately 300 in number and representing all five orchestras, will begin their fall season indoors on Oct. 17, after McFarland moves to a hybrid model for the school year.

The string players will be divided into 15-student cohorts by orchestra, with a wonderful mix of violins, violas, cellos and basses in each group, and with the groups spread throughout one wing of the high school in large music rooms and atriums.

The percussionists have been scheduled into the new Black Box Theater and they are excited to begin playing on the brand new marimbas and timpani so recently acquired by WYSO through a gift from an incredibly generous anonymous donor.

Everything has been carefully scheduled so that at any given time there will not be more than 125 students, conductors and staff in the building.

Start and end times have been staggered. The large beautiful spaces at McFarland will easily hold the socially distanced and mask-wearing players. And the orchestras will again be scheduled into Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons. Even the WYSO Chamber Music Program (below) has been scheduled into the intricate puzzle.

The rest of this exciting fall story has to do with adding incredibly talented professional musicians to lead some of the cohorts and the amazing repertoire available for groups of 15 musicians, whether they play winds, brass, strings or percussion.

From Mozart’s “Gran Partita” to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and 6; from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite” to Bartok’s Divertimento, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings — there is almost an “embarrassment of riches” of exciting, seldom-played repertoire, to quote WYSO Music Director Kyle Knox (below). And this fall, that repertoire will be right in WYSO’s wheelhouse.

WYSO will video-capture this year’s Fall Concerts of students playing in the beautiful McFarland Performing Arts Center to 800 empty seats and let you know the exact Fall Concert dates as we get closer. Click here for additional information.

While WYSO is incredibly excited about our in-person plan for rehearsals and playing music together, we have also drawn up two alternate plans, and know that not everyone will be able to participate in-person.

WYSO Registration is underway, and we are asking those who cannot participate in the McFarland experience to let us know their needs through the registration process, so that we can create the best virtual experience possible for those involved. Tuition payment is not due at registration.

To register, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/members/wyso-registration-form/

 


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: This summer’s Handel Aria Competition is postponed again — until next summer. But a Virtual Gala with new performances will be held online on Sept. 10

May 20, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 8th Annual Handel Aria Competition (below) has been postponed for a second time — until 2021 — for the safety of our singers, musicians and audience members.

The upper age limit for the competition will be extended when the competition resumes, so that all singers eligible this year can still participate.

We are introducing a new initiative to support the finalists from the past seasons of the competition – all of whom have had their opportunities to perform severely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Your assistance in spreading the word would be much appreciated!

Originating in Madison, the Handel Aria Competition Virtual Gala will take place online and worldwide on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m.

While the gala will not actually be live, since it requires editing together many separate elements of video, it will be shared via Facebook Live and also be available on YouTube and our website (see below).

It is our plan to feature professionally recorded Baroque arias specially performed for the occasion by past finalists and winners, as well as some of the videos recorded during the competition itself. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear bass-baritone Jonathan Woody singing an aria from the oratorio “Belshazzar” in 2019.)

We are also going to ask the finalists to record short video quotes about how the Handel Aria Competition has helped their careers, and why they love singing Handel.

Our host will be the Handel Aria Competition’s artistic director — and first prize-winner in 2015 — Sarah Brailey (below), who is also pursuing her doctorate at the UW-Madison.

Thanks to individual donations and foundation grants, all of the funds raised during the gala will be shared among the participating singers.

We hope you will join us in showing that we value their talent, and want to help them get through this difficult time.

For news updates and details, go to: https://handelariacompetition.com

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Middleton Community Orchestra, Festival Choir, Oakwood Chamber Players and First Unitarian Society cancel concerts because of the coronavirus

March 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The state health emergency declared by Gov. Tony Evers has now become a national emergency declared by President Trump.

Six more local groups have cancelled concerts as the pandemic of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads exponentially and threatens the health of both the public and the performers:

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) has cancelled its concert TONIGHT of Yiddish music at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) has cancelled and postponed all concerts through March. They include the “Beethoven Lives Next Door” Family Series concerts THIS MORNING at the Goodman Community Center and on March 29 in Brookfield; and the third Masterworks Concert in Madison with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis on March 27 in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Says Joe Loehnis, CEO of the WCO: “We ask for your patience as we work to determine all of the options we will be able to offer to ticket holders. We are deeply grateful for your understanding.

“We’ll also keep you informed of the status of all our upcoming performances as we continue to monitor the situation closely over the coming days and weeks.

“To learn more about our contingency planning, please visit our website at http://bit.ly/2wSMCbe.

“If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call us at (608) 257-0638, or email, wco@wcoconcerts.org.

“Thank you for your patronage and support.”

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) have cancelled their concerts on Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22, at Oakwood Village University Woods on the far west side.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below, below in a photo by Brian Ruppert) has cancelled its upcoming concert of teenage concerto winners with guest conductor Kyle Knox on Wednesday, April 8, and postponed it until large gatherings become safe again.

The FREE Friday Noon Musicale series at the First Unitarian Society of Madison will be live-streamed without an audience. Says music director Drew Collins:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the First Unitarian Society of Madison will alter the schedule for its Friday Noon Musicale recital series.

Beginning March 20, 2020…

* No audience members will be permitted.

* Outside doors will be locked.

* In cases where the performers are not able or willing to play, notification will be made via https://nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=www.fusmadison.org%2Fmusicale&data=02%7C01%7C%7Cce899e33b3124e28489608d7c70cdac6%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637196730328671160&sdata=069CmBdvgPRWjGi%2BiCEUdeD%2Fth2zVBJlzJowWcnH%2BFc%3D&reserved=0and no live-stream will be broadcast.

“Stay tuned for the upcoming launch of our SoundCloud channel, curated by Rich Samuels, where you will be able to listen to highlights from the Musicales.

In related news, the Madison Symphony Orchestra announced Friday that it will make a decision about upcoming concerts next week. But since the Overture Center later announced it is closing its doors until April 13 and cancelling all performances, it would seem that the MSO performances of the Dvorak Requiem on April 3, 4 and 5 will be cancelled. But that has not yet been officially confirmed by the MSO.

In addition, the Madison Opera has cancelled its production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” on April 17 and 19.


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Classical music: Home or concert hall? Will older listeners follow new CDC guidelines about the coronavirus to stay home and avoid attending concerts? What will performers and presenters do in response?

March 7, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Late yesterday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidelines for behavior during the outbreak of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

The CDC is asking all adults over 60, especially those with compromised immune systems and serious underlying illnesses and conditions, to “stay home as much as possible” and avoid attending events with big crowds. (Below is a sample of a full house at the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is the full story — which also mentions other kinds of mass events such as movie theaters, mall shopping, sports events and religious services — from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/06/health/coronavirus-older-people-social-distancing/index.html

Moreover, the new guidelines apply nationwide — including here in Wisconsin where only one case has been confirmed and is now healthy– during the increasingly widespread, worldwide outbreak of confirmed cases and deaths.

The Ear wonders if the new advice will hit classical music especially hard because so much of the audience for it is made up of older people who are more vulnerable.

Will the guidelines affect your own attendance at concerts, even tonight and this weekend at the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Union Theater? 

Will a lack of attendance and a more severe outbreak lead to empty concert halls and the cancellation of concerts? Refunds for seniors?

Will the guidelines lead to alternative ways of “attending” and hearing, such as live-streaming and other virtual attendance?

Pretty soon we should start hearing from music presenters and performers about their reactions, solutions and advice.

Meanwhile, here is a news story from The New York Times about what one string quartet did in Venice, Italy: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/arts/music/arts-coronavirus.html

Are you an older or vulnerable person?

Will you go to concerts or stay home?

What do you think presenters and performers should do to deal with the situation?

Please leave word about your plans and your thoughts.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear the all-Russian program by violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here are two very positive reviews and a more critical one

October 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, is your last chance to hear the highly praised all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), conducted by music director John DeMain.

The  guest soloist is the critically acclaimed, virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) from Chicago.

For more details about the program, the performers, program notes and tickets, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/classical-music-this-weekend-guest-violinist-rachel-barton-pine-solos-in-an-all-russian-program-of-khachaturian-prokofiev-and-shostakovich-by-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

The concert features the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Aram Khachaturian; the “Lieutenant Kijé Suite” film score by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

From the previews, the thematic program – all works were composed in the Soviet Union under the threatening shadow of the terrorist-dictator Josef Stalin (below) — sounded promising.

And it turns out that that the promise was, to varying degrees, fulfilled.

Here are two very positive reviews of the concert.

The first is by Michael Muckian (below), who has taken over reviewing duties at Isthmus for the now retired critic John W. Barker: https://isthmus.com/music/wildrussianride/

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below): https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2019/10/19/madison-symphony-triumphs-over-the-soviets/

And here is a somewhat more critical review by UW-Madison music graduate Matt Ambrosio (below) written for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/review-rachel-barton-pine-gives-memorable-performance-with-the-mso/article_61f34b8d-8dd8-514d-8e75-576a47826a04.html

What did you think of the programs, the performers and the performance?

Which critic do you most agree with?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: As we say goodbye to summer, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Irish composer Joan Trimble’s “Pastorale” homage to the summery French composer Francis Poulenc

August 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week from today is Labor Day.

So it is time to start saying goodbye to summer and hello to fall — even though the autumnal equinox won’t arrive until Monday, Sept. 23, at 2:50 a.m. CDT.

The Ear’s favorite summertime composer is the French master Francis Poulenc (below), whose accessible and tuneful music possesses in abundance that Gallic sense of lightness and lyricism, of wit and charm, of modern Mozartean classicism and clarity — complete with trills and ornaments — that seems so appropriate to the summer season.

But then recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, The Ear heard for the first time something inspired by Poulenc that he thinks many of you will appreciate, especially during the transition between the seasons.

It is, appropriately, a 2-1/2 minute “Pastorale” for two  pianos – a form Poulenc himself used in his most famous piano concerto — by the underplayed and little known Irish 20th-century composer and pianist Joan Trimble (below). And it has many of the same qualities that distinguish Poulenc.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia entry with more about Trimble: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Trimble

You can hear her homage to Poulenc in the YouTube video, from a Marco Polo CD distributed by Naxos Records, that is below.

Here’s hoping you enjoy it.

If you have a reaction, positive or negative, please share it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


Posted in Classical music
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