The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The critically acclaimed and popular Willy Street Chamber Players start their fifth summer series with a FREE community concert this Friday

July 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement for a remarkable and must-hear summer series of chamber music concerts that from its very beginning seems to have found a successful formula that resonated with the public  It relies on informality, affordable tickets, first-rate musicianship, short concerts, eclectic programs that mix classics with sure-fire new music, support for their local community.

Now in their fifth year, the Willy Street Chamber Players (WSCP, below) have become an established part of the Williamson Street neighborhood.

Recently awarded the silver medal in Madison Magazine’s prestigious “Best of Madison” reader poll in the category of “Best Classical Music Group,” WSCP has received numerous accolades for its accessible and exciting performances, intelligent and fun programming, and dedication to community partnerships.

The group has also been named “Musician of the Year”for 2016 by this blog.

The Summer Series concerts are on Friday evenings at 6 p.m. in the sanctuary of the beautiful Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) at 1021 Spaight St. The church is right on Lake Monona in the Williamson Street neighborhood. Enjoy 60-90 minutes of inspiring and unforgettable live music, then go explore the neighborhood with the remaining daylight hours.

Following the performance, enjoy a reception provided by one of our Willy Street restaurant partners. (Past contributors have been the Underground Butcher, Let It Ride Cold Brew Coffee, Madison Sourdough, the Willy Street Co-Op, Festival Foods, Roman Candle Pizza and more.)

While you enjoy your snacks, chat with the friendly musicians and ask them about the performance, the pieces and the group. We love interacting with our awesome audience.

A season pass is $40. Admission to individual concerts is $15. For tickets and more infomation, got to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/2019-summer-series.html

COMMUNITY CONNECT – This is a FREE and family-friendly concert with all ages welcome for music, interactive learning, conversation and connections.

It takes place this Friday, July 5, at 6 p.m. at the Goodman Community Center (149 Waubesa Street on the east side), as is posted on the home website — NOT at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, which is listed in the printed brochure but is undergoing construction.

The program – “Growing Sound: A Sonic Exploration” – features music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Corigliano, Antonin Dvorak, Friedrich August Kummer and Alberto Ginastera.

SUMMER SERIES 1

Friday, July 12, at 6 p.m. – Mozart and Mendelssohn

Prize-winning UW-Madison graduate Danny Kim, viola (below)

PROGRAM:

Mendelssohn: String Quintet No. 1 in A major, Op. 18 (1826)

Simon Steen-Andersen: Study for String Instrument No. 1 (2007)

Mozart: String Quintet No. 2 in C minor, K. 406/516b (1787)

SUMMER SERIES 2

Friday, July 19, at 6 p.m. – Bassoon and Strings

UW-Madison Professor Marc Vallon, bassoon (below)

PROGRAM:

Beethoven: Allegretto for Piano Trio in B-flat major, WoO. 39 (1812)

Jennifer Higdon: “Dark Wood” (2001)

Franz Danzi: Bassoon Quartet in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820)

Alberto Ginastera: String Quartet No.1, Op. 20 (1948)

SUMMER SERIES 3

Friday, July 26, at 6 p.m. – Christopher Taylor, piano (below)

PROGRAM:

Ernest Bloch: Three Nocturnes (1924)

Jessie Montgomery: “Voodoo Dolls” (2008)

Dvorak: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887) with UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor. (You can hear the first movement of Dvorak’s beautiful and melodic Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, including background, biographies of the musicians, critics’ reviews, photos and how to support the Willy Street Chamber Players, go to:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players will play music by Russian, British, Canadian and American composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

March 1, 2019
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ALERT: If you attend the concert by the Cuarteto Casals tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, you night want to read local writer and amateur cellist Paul Baker’s interview with the Chicago-born violist who analyzes the interpretation of each piece on the program. Here is a link to Baker’s blog “Only Strings” where you can find the interview: https://onlystringswsum.wordpress.com/author/pbaker/  

For more information about the group and the concert, go to yesterday’s post:  https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/classical-music-this-friday-night-the-wisconsin-union-theater-presents-a-world-class-spanish-string-quartet-and-will-also-announce-the-special-programs-for-its-centennial-anniversary-next-season/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their season theme of Vignettes with compositions that depict concepts and stories.

The program includes dances from Panama, a string quartet from Russia and interpretation of the natural world woven into a composition by an American composer.

Performances will take place Saturday night, March 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 3, at 2 p.m. Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side not far from 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 www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com or call (608) 230-4316 for more information.

Five Novelettes for string quartet by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (below) showcase the composer’s imagination and romantic writing. From the opening elegance in the Spanish style to the spirited Hungarian character in the finale, each of the five contrasting movements is graceful and captivating.

Red Hills Black Birds was composed by American composer Libby Larsen (below) for clarinet, viola and piano after she viewed contrasting paintings of New Mexico by Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of O’Keeffe’s works embody a sense of perspective, color and horizon. Larsen’s music uses her impressions of O’Keeffe’s art as her compositional focus. She reimagines six paintings of the southwest and shapes her composition to concepts of breadth and timelessness.

Dash for flute, clarinet and piano by American composer Jennifer Higdon (below) is a riotous musical chase. The composer chose these three instruments specifically for their capability of velocity. The unrelenting pulse creates a breath-taking technical sprint for the players.

O Albion by British composer Thomas Adès (below) is excerpted from his string quartet Arcadiana. The music has an ethereal quality and mesmerizes with its slow beauty and simplicity. (You can hear “O Albion” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon is an upbeat piece written by Canadian composer, bassoonist and jazz pianist Bill Douglas. His writing brings together both classical and jazz influences.

The concert concludes with Danzas de Panama by William Grant Still (below) for string quintet and flute. A noted 20th century African-American composer, Still based this piece on Panamanian folk tunes collected in the 1920s. He used the lushness of the songs and compelling rhythms with great success. He was a talented orchestrator and it is hard to resist the panache and charm of the four movements: Taborita, Mejorana, Punto and Cumbia y Conga.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szyczs, bassoon; and Maggie Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guest artists Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Ariel Garcia, viola; Brad Townsend, bass; and Satoko Hayami, piano.

This is the fourth of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2018-2019 season series entitled Vignettes. Remaining concerts will take place on May 18 and 19.

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

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


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Classical music: You probably know Brahms, but who are Caroline Shaw, Colin Jacobsen and Michael Kelley? The Willy Street Chamber Players will show you this Friday night

July 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The fourth annual concert series by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) promises to be one of the high points of the summer season.

For more background about the Willys, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/classical-music-the-willy-street-chamber-players-announce-their-five-impressive-july-concerts-three-with-admission-and-two-for-free-as-both-subscription-and-single-tickets-go-on-sale/

Three concerts in July – at 6 p.m. on July 6, 20 and 27 in the Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) at 1021 Spaight Street on the near east side – are all inviting. (A subscription to all three is $40, while admission is $15 for each one separately.)

Each concert lasts about 60 to 90 minutes with no intermission.

That’s something The Ear really likes and would like to see copied by other groups and presenters. Such a format leaves you plenty of time to do other things to start the weekend – including enjoying the post-concert reception (below) with snacks the Willys obtain from east-side providers.

The opening concert seems especially promising to The Ear.

That is because so far the Willys have had a knack for programming new music that The Ear really likes.

This time is no different.

Along with the regular members, who rotate in and out, a guest singer, mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil (below), who sang a new work by John Harbison with the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet this past winter, will team up to present new works.

The three contemporary composers and their works are: “Cant voi l’aube (composed in 2015 and heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) by Caroline Shaw (below top), a composer whose work the Willys have performed before with great success; “For Sixty Cents” (2015) by Colin Jacobsen (below middle, in a photo by Erin Baiano); and “Five Animal Stories” for string sextet and “Ashug” (2018) by Michael Kelley (below bottom).

Then to leaven newness with something more classic and familiar, the concert will close with the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. (The Willys have been working their way through the string quintets and sextets of Brahms with terrific performances.)

Other concerts will include:

On July 20, six arias from the opera “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin as transcribed and played by UW-Madison soprano saxophonist Les Thimmig (below) and the rarely performed String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39, by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov ;

And on July 27, a program featuring wind music that includes “Night Music in the Streets of Madrid,” Op. 30, No. 6, by Luigi Boccherini; the Overture on Hebrew Themes by Sergei Prokofiev “Light Screens” (2002) by Andrew Norman (below); and the Kaiser Waltzes of Johann Strauss II, as arranged by Arnold Schoenberg.

The three local soloists for the final concert are: flutist Timothy Hagen (below top) and clarinetist Alicia Lee (below middle), who both teach at the UW-Madison and are members of the Wingra Wind Quintet, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf, who is finishing his doctorate at the UW-Madison and has often soloed with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

For more information about the Willy Street Chamber players—including a FREE community concert at the Goodman Community Center on Friday, July 13, at noon (with an instrument “petting zoo” for children at 11 a.m.) and at the Wisconsin Union Terrace — go to:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org


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Classical music: Grammy winners Takacs Quartet and pianist Garrick Ohlsson perform a MUST-HEAR concert of Mozart, Brahms and Shostakovich this Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Plus, you can hear a FREE performance of string music by Johan Halvorsen and Philip Glass this Friday at noon

November 30, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features the Passcaglia Duo of Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen and String Quartet No. 5 by American contemporary composer Philip Glass.

Performers are violinists Kaleigh Acord, Elspeth Stalter and Ela Mowinski; violist Shannon Farley; and cellist Morgan Walsh. The concert, which runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will be streamed live on the Facebook page of Noon Musicales.

By Jacob Stockinger

Separately and together, The Ear loves piano and strings.

So you can imagine the appeal of a concert that will take place this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

That’s when the veteran and venerable Takacs Quartet (below) and acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson will join forces in a terrific all-masterpiece program.

The concert has all the makings of a MUST-HEAR event for chamber music fans.

The award-winning Takacs Quartet, founded 42 years ago in Hungary and widely recorded and honored, will play two string quartets.

The late String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below), is the first of the composer’s three so-called “Prussian” quartets.

Known for a more relaxed style than the earlier “Haydn” quartets by Mozart, the Prussian quartets were composed for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II (below), who was a talented amateur cellist.

The Takacs will also perform the seven-movement String Quartet No. 11 in F minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (below). It is one of The Ear’s very favorite of the 16 quartets written by the Russian composer who endured the torments and treacheries of the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union.

Then Garrick Ohlsson (below) will join in for the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms. It is one of the four or five crowning quintets for piano and string quartet.

The Ear loves the playing of both artists and the program should be deeply interesting and moving. The Takacs possesses a mastery of many styles and has recorded numerous quartets by Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Smetana, Janacek and, more recently, by Dvorak as well as a terrific complete cycle of the 16 Beethoven quartets.

But the Takacs has recorded little Mozart (two string quintets) and little Shostakovich (one quartet and a piano quintet), so The Ear looks forward to hearing the quartet’s take on those composers.

The Takacs has recorded the Brahms Piano Quintet, but with British pianist Stephen Hough and Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, but that work too should be a memorable performance with Ohlsson, the only American ever to win the International Chopin Piano Competition. (You can hear the energetic and lyrical opening movement from the Takacs-Hough recording in the YouTube video at the bottom, which has an intriguing and colorful bar graph to emphasize the structure.)

Tickets are $10-$47. For more information about purchasing tickets plus a video and more background about the artists, go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/takacs-quartet-with-garrick-ohlsson/


Classical music: Farley’s underappreciated Salon Piano Series shines again with duo-pianists Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro

September 29, 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

Roberto Plano appeared last season in a four-piano concert in the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. This year, to open the 2017-18 season in the same series on last Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based pianist brought along his pianist wife, Paola Del Negro, for a duo program of utter fascination. (They are below.)

The first half of the program was devoted to music for piano-four hands, the duo alternating between primo and secondo parts. Robert Schumann’s six “Pictures From the East,” Op. 66, are examples of the composer’s important duo output.

Burgmein was the pen name of the covert composer better known as the influential music promoter and publisher Giulio Ricordi (below). His set of six duet pieces evoking characters from the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte tradition followed.

Then came two of the Hungarian Dances (No. 2 and 5) by Johannes Brahms in their original piano-duo form. (You can hear them play Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ending the program’s first half was one of its biggest hits. After composing the great orchestral cycle of six patriotic scenes called “My Country,” Bedrich Smetana (below) made four-hand piano arrangements of each. Plano and Del Negro played that for the popular “Moldau.” This arrangement managed to capture a good deal of the orchestral original’s coloristic and dramatic effects, and was played with particular power.

The entire second half was devoted exclusively to a major work by Brahms, his Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. This work was created first as a string quintet, then later discarded. But the two-piano version (below) was superseded by Brahms’ transformation of its material into a Quintet for Piano and Strings (reckoned as plain Op. 34).

The Quintet — which, by the way will be performed by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet in the Salon Series next March — is, of course, one of the composer’s masterpieces. But the Two-Piano Sonata survives on its own merits. The parallel material is presented cogently, all of it redistributed in consistently keyboard terms, as against the mixed media of the Quintet.

The duo played it with the necessary Brahmsian burliness and power, and on Farley’s wonderful vintage pianos it sounded simply magnificent.

As an encore, the duo played a two-piano arrangement of an energetic tango piece by Astor Piazzolla, but then followed with another, in this case, an eight-hand piano trifle in which the Plano-Del Negro duo were joined as parents by their two young daughters (below). The audience could hardly resist that!

Plano and Del Negro are great discoveries. And once again, the Salon Piano Series has shown itself as one of the exciting, if too-little-known of Madison’s musical treasures.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org


Classical music: Starting this Sunday night, the next month is busy for the UW-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet with FREE concerts of music by Mozart, Brahms and Schubert

September 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The opening concert of the new season of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) is this coming Sunday night, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The Pro Arte Quartet will give an all-Mozart program, featuring Alicia Lee (below), the new clarinet professor at the UW-Madison. The works to be performed are the G Major “Haydn” String Quartet, K. 387, called the “Spring” Quartet, and the famed late Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581. (You can hear the sublime slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to biographies of new faculty members at the UW-Madison School of Music, including that of Lee:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/06/20/new-faculty-hires-at-the-school-of-music/

In early October, the internationally celebrated violist Nobuko Imai (below) returns to the UW-Madison campus, on her way from Europe to a concert in Minneapolis.

Her master class on viola and chamber music will be on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Morphy Recital Hall. It is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

The following day, Thursday, Oct. 5, at NOON in Mills Hall, Imai  will perform a FREE public concert with members of the Pro Arte Quartet and guest cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below).

The program is a single work, a masterpiece: the Brahms G Major Viola Quintet, Op. 111. It is legendary for the first viola part, according to a member of the quartet, and Imai would herself be legendary in this role.

Cellist Fonteneau is a member of the San Francisco Trio, and is familiar to Madison audiences through his many acclaimed appearances with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

Adds Pro Arte violist Sally Chisholm: “This particular concert is another gesture to all the long-time supporters of the Pro Arte and the Madison community who remain part of our legacy.”

The Pro Arte’s second concert, also FREE and open to the public, is Saturday night, Oct. 28, in Mills Hall. It is will be all Schubert – the flute and piano theme and variations, and the Schubert Octet, featuring members of both the Wingra Wind Quintet and the Pro Arte Quartet.

Says Chisholm: “The Schubert Octet has been much discussed up and down the fourth floor of the School of Music for several years, and suddenly, we said “Let’s do it!”

“We checked calendars, and the Wingra was free to join us on Oct. 28. Whether this is a first performance of the Schubert, or one of many, the feeling is always that we never have the chance to perform it often enough. We hope it brings us all together with hope and joy.”

The Pro Arte Quartet’s longtime cellist Parry Karp continues to teach and coach chamber musicians, but he has been sidelined by a finger injury and will not yet be back to perform these concerts. He is scheduled to return to performing in November, according to Chisholm.


Classical music: More chamber music should be performed at the Goodman Community Center on the east side. Are there other underused venues?

July 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday morning, The Ear headed off to the Goodman Community Center (below), on the near east side just off Atwood Avenue.

The reason was to hear a noontime concert by one of his favorite chamber music groups: The Willy Street Chamber Players.

The summer concert was part of the new and FREE Community Connect series by The Willys. And the terrific performances of works by Caroline Shaw, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Astor Piazzolla and Johannes Brahms seemed to draw in a good-sized crowd that was younger and even included some children.

Clearly, The Willys have indeed connected to the community in a different part of town than where they usually perform.

But another of the great things about The Willys is that they also explore new venues.

For the past two winters, they have performed a season preview concert in “A Place to Be” on Williamson Street.

What struck The Ear this time, however, was the Evjue Community Room (below) at the Goodman Center.

The handsomely rehabbed room sure seems an ideal venue for chamber music.

Why, The Ear wondered, was it the first time he was there for a concert?

The room seats about 100, making it ideal for intimate music.

It has lots of natural light, which the players (below) said they really like for reading music.

And the acoustics were superb, no doubt the result of the cream-colored brick, the dark wood, the glass windows and the metal ductwork – all hard surfaces that made for clarity and sufficient volume, even in the back rows. It is, as they say in the biz, a “live” space.

Take a look:

The Ear sure hopes the Goodman Center will see the return of The Willys.

More to the point, he also hopes that other chamber music groups will also use the center. It would be a wonderful spot for recitals and small groups of all kinds.

What do you think of the Goodman Center as a venue for classical music and other kinds of music?

Do you know of other underused performance spaces around the Madison area that you would recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It’s a busy week for the Pro Arte Quartet of the UW-Madison with concerts on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday night. Plus, Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino performs at Farley’s House of Pianos on Sunday afternoon.

October 3, 2015
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REMINDER: The Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos opens this Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. with a performance by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino. The program includes music by Felix Mendelssohn; the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue at Cesar Franck; and the 12 Etudes, Op. 10, by Frederic Chopin. For more information, visit:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

By Jacob Stockinger

The Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) has a busy concert schedule ahead of it this week.

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet, the longest active string quartet in the history of music, are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

On this Sunday, starting at 12:30 p.m., the Pro Arte will open the new “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” series, as it has done for close to 40 years.

The program includes: the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1799-1800) by Ludwig van Beethoven; the Langsamer Satz (slow movement) for String Quartet (1905) by Anton Webern; and the String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428 (1783) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But for the second year in a row, the program will be streamed live on the Chazen Museum of Art’s website rather than over Wisconsin Public Radio, which pulled the plug on the venerable and acclaimed live concert series that presented chamber music and recitals by individuals and ensembles around the state.

You can attend the concert in person in Brittingham Gallery 3 for FREE. And here is a link, embedded in an image, for streaming it live:

http://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/events-calendar/event/sal-10-4-15/

SALProArteMay2010

Then at 7:30 p.m. on this coming Wednesday night, the Pro Arte will perform a FREE concert with the acclaimed and prize-winning violist Nobuko Imai (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) as the special guest artist.

Nobuko Imai photo: Marco Borggreve always credit name photographer bach@xs4all.nl

The program is the String Quintet in C Minor, K. 406, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 87, by Felix Mendelssohn. Both works are scored for string quartet plus an extra viola. (The Mozart string quintet is a transcription of an earlier Wind Octet. You can hear the first movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link with more information about Nobuko Imai who will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-with-violist-nobuko-imai/

 


Classical music: Is this the minority report of a dissenter? The Ear offers some thoughts and after-thoughts from recent concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Pro Arte String Quartet, the Middleton Community Orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. Plus, here are links to rave reviews of this afternoon’s final all-Beethoven concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 9, 2014
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ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2014/A-Piano-Concerto-Doubleheader-and-Beethoven-to-the-Max/

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42237

Yefim Bronfman portrait

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!

But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH

It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.

MSO playing

The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.

John Adams

Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.

Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.

Andrew Sewell BW

But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.

Vittorio Giannini

And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing.  Could that help explain why he gets full houses?

Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of  “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert  to The Ear.

Michael McLean 1 REAL not mormon

PRO ARTE QUARTET

Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.

I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”

Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?

Benoit Mernier 1

I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.

So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?

Haydn

PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR

What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.

But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!

The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.

Beethoven big

The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.

Am I alone in that wish?

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.

With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.

Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?

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Classical music: John W. Barker says the world premiere of the new string quartet by Belgian composer Benoit Mernier proved a memorable, satisfying and successful way to celebrate the centennial of the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet, as does the rarely heard String Quintet of Anton Bruckner.

March 5, 2014
1 Comment

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 every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

This past week witnessed the fifth in the projected six events in the centennial celebration for the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer; event photos are by The Ear), which has served as artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1940, when its members were stranded here by World War II and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi invasion of their homeland Belgium.  For me, it proved the most satisfying centennial event yet.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Here full disclosure is necessary. I am a member of the committee that has been planning all of these celebrations, under the diligent leadership of Sarah Schaffer. Accordingly, the piece that follows has more of a personal reminiscence than an objective distance.

Each of the events is focused on a composer who has been commissioned to write a piece for the Pro Arte Quartet. The first four resulting works were given their premieres, under the supervision of the individual composers, during the course of the 2011-12 season. (The PAQ performances of these four works have now appeared in a 2-CD set from the Albany label.)  The fifth premiere had to be deferred from last autumn, and finally came about on Saturday night in Mills Hall.

pro arte cd commission cover

Whereas the previous four composers were all Americans, it was felt that the remaining ones should have Belgian connections, in view of the initial PAQ’s origins in that country.  After much scouting, the choice was given to Benoit Mernier (below, in a photo by Bernard Coutant), who is a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium.

benoit mernier by bernard coutant

Born in 1964, Mernier has rapidly emerged as one of the pre-eminent composers in Belgium today, perhaps the leading one.  The hallmark of his output as a composer is his range and versatility. He has composed three operas — a scene of his opera “La Dispute,” based on a play by Pierre de Marivaux, is in a YouTube video at bottom — and he says he loves writing for voices in settings of poetry.  He has also written widely for choral, chamber and orchestral media. He studied both organ and harpsichord, and is himself an accomplished performing organist, composing extensively for the instrument.

His commission, funded by both the Pro Arte Quartet and the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation, has resulted in his String Quartet No. 3, completed last year.  He arrived in Madison early last week, flying directly from Belgium, to supervise the work’s premiere. He established an immediate and cordial rapport with his hosts here. He had warned that his command of English was poor, but he soon disproved that in quite workable facility (with occasional help from local Francophones).

Above all, he plunged into work with the PAQ with zest.  The group had been working on his score for weeks before, by contrast with some groups with which he has worked, groups still struggling to master his music.  As a result, our four players were fully in command of the quartet, so that Mernier (below) could move beyond technical drilling and concentrate on their expression of his ideas.

Benoit Mernier by Lise Mernier

I sat in on a three-hour “public” rehearsal in Mills Hall on Thursday, Feb. 27, and was fascinated to see Mernier bustle about in constant consultation with the players as he polished their mastery of the work. Lithe, energetic, spontaneous, he is a bundle of energy and insight.

In addition, he has an open, unforced, and vivacious personality that makes working with him a great delight.  In numerous social and planning contacts, he was bubbly, engaged company.  Indeed, my perception was that he conveyed to all of us not only his music but also that very outgoing personality itself

Mernier had a chance to go along with the quartet members for an “out-of-town tryout”, a so-called “pre-premiere” of his quartet as part of a full concert in Prairie du Sac last Friday evening. Then, the next evening its program was given for the official world premiere.

It was a truly rich menu, beginning with Haydn’s early Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4, a little microcosm all its own; then came the new Mernier Quartet; and, finally, Anton Bruckner’s expansive String Quintet.

So, how was the new Mernier work?  Well, it seems perhaps thorny music at first encounter, although it did receive a prolonged standing ovation (below, with members of the quartet and the composer standing second from right ).  Long gone are traditional structural forms and lush melodies.  But it is a very thoughtfully and skillfully composed piece of about 25 minutes in length.  It is cast in nine movements of varying length, interrelated in ideas and ultimately cohering into a comprehensive structure.

Benoit Mernier with Pro Arte Quartet and standing ovation

Before the concert, in a “conversation” onstage (below, which—full disclosure again — I moderated) Mernier discussed the sonic elements, the “signposts” that he used recurrently in putting together the whole piece.

Benoit Mernier at Q&A with John W. Barker

Met honestly, the score has a logic and even power to it that one might compare to Bela Bartók’s quartets — and we have all caught up with those by now, haven’t we? I had worried that the latest blizzard that day would result in an empty house.  But Mills was packed with people, and they gave an enthusiastic, and justified, standing ovation to Mernier and the PAQ players.

Pro Arte Quartet Mernier good house

For my part, I think I have found this Mernier Quartet the most musically satisfying of all the commissioned works presented so far.

The concert program, minus the Haydn, was repeated the following day at the midday presentation of “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” a concert open to the public and broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But, if as an epilogue, I must point out the performance of the work by Bruckner (below) was an event in itself.  This involves one of only two substantial chamber works composed by Bruckner, better known for massive and grandly architectural symphonies for large orchestra. 

Completed in 1879, between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, this is an extensive (one should not say “sprawling”) work, calling for a second viola as the fifth instrument.  Composed in the same format and style as symphonic works of Bruckner (below), this score might almost be understood as the blueprint for a kind of mini-symphony by the composer.

Anton Bruckner 2

The performance by the PAQ, their first address to it, was for me another reminder of the value of experiencing in a “live performance” a work I have known only from recordings.

Pro Arte Quartet playing Bruckner

Being able to watch the players in action helps to understand the writing. I realized for the first time, for example, just how much of a prominent role is accorded to the first viola in the string texture here. And in this performance, that role was vividly fulfilled by a guest player, Samuel Rhodes (below) of the Juilliard School , who recently retired from the Juilliard String Quartet and remains one of the country’s leading violists, and a good friend of many of the PAQ players.

Samuel Rhodes photo by Peter Schaaf (lower res.)

Also, I could observe clearly how Bruckner, in this chamber writing, treated the two violins and the two violas (below, Sally Chisholm on the left and Samuel Rhodes on the right) as distinct entities, variously using them in either interplay or opposition, while the cello receded to pizzicato rhythms, or dropped out entirely. Such are the revelations that direct personal experience of performances allow!

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

In all, then, a truly wonderful event this centennial concert proved to be a truly wonderful event.  And there is still one more, with the world premiere of a Clarinet Quintet by French-Canadian composer Pierre Jalbert (below) next September, with another delightful pre-concert dinner (below) and art tour in the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art scheduled to take place.

Pierre Jalbert

Mernier dinner at Chazen Museum

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