The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

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.

By John W. Barker

The opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.

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Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble open their new seasons this Saturday night

October 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s another busy week at the start of the new concert season, and two more groups are giving opening concerts this Saturday night:

MOSAIC CHAMBER PLAYERS

On this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Mosaic Chamber Players will open their new season.

The Madison-based group will perform an all-Beethoven program and complete its cycle of all the string sonatas. The program is the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2; the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter in the YouTube video below); and the Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2.

The performers are Laura Burns (below top) and Wes Luke (below second), violins; Kyle Price, cello (below third); and Jess Salek, piano (below bottom).

Tickets are $15 for the public; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Check or cash only.

Adds artistic director Jess Salek: “We have been opening our seasons with the Beethoven string sonatas for five years now, so this really exciting for us!”

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will give a concert of varied baroque vocal and instrumental chamber music on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Members of the WBE are Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Monica Steger, traverse flute and harpsichord; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

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

For more information, got to www.wisconsinbaroque.org

A reception will be held after the concert at 2422 Kendall Ave, second floor

The program features:

Johann Philipp Kernberger – Sonata in C major for traverso and basso continuo

D’India – “Piangono al pianger mio” (I Shed Tears, As The Wild Animals Do)

Cipriano de Rore – “Ancor che col partire” (Although When I Part From You), arranged for viola da gamba by Riccardo Rognini

Francesca Caccini – “Io Veggio i Campi Verdeggiar Fecondi” (I See the Fertile Fields Turn Green); “Dov’io Credea de Mie Speranze” (Where I Thought My Hopes Were Real)

Georg Philipp Telemann (below) – Trio Sonata for alto recorder, violin and basso continuo TWV 42:d10 (heard in the YouTube video below)

INTERMISSION

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – duet for two traversi without bass

Francesco Mancini – Sonata No. 1 in D Minor for recorder and basso continuo

Georg Friedrich Handel – “Süsse Stille” (Sweet Silence)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (below) – La Pantomime (The Pantomime), from Pièces de clavecin, 4th concert; “Les Surprises de l’Amour” (Love’s Surprises), selected movement from Act II, transcribed by Ludwig Christian Hesse


Classical music: The chamber music group Con Vivo opens its 16th season this Saturday night and the free Unitarian Society’s Friday Noon Musicales resume this week

October 4, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new concert season continues to get underway with two more openings this weekend.

FRIDAY

This Friday, the FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will resume.

The weekly concerts, planned by FUS music director Dan Broner, run from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

This week’s program features flutist Iva Ugrcic (below) and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Nikolai Kapustin, Carl Vine, Andre Jolivet and Minoru Miki. (Sorry, no specific pieces were named.)

SATURDAY

On Saturday night, the Madison-based chamber music ensemble Con Vivo (Music With Life, below) opens its 16th season.

The concert is entitled “Three’s Company” and takes place this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave. across from Camp Randall.

Tickets can be purchased in advance at Orange Tree Imports: 1721 Monroe St., or at the door for $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students.

The group opens its season with music for piano duet, Libertango, by Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is performed by the husband-and-wife piano duo of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, who recently played together in Madison at Farley’s House of Pianos.)

The Terzetto for string trio by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak will also be performed.

The evening will close with the beautiful Trio for clarinet, cello and piano by Austrian composer Carl Fruhling (below).

Audience members are invited to join the musicians after the concert for a free reception where they can discuss the concert with the musicians.

In remarking about the concert, artistic director Robert Taylor says: “We are delighted and thrilled to begin our ‘Sweet Sixteen’ season with music that will surely entertain, enliven and energize our audience. We are sure this will once again be a concert to remember.”

Con Vivo 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.


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings the debut of a new conducting professor with the UW Symphony Orchestra plus a major voice recital, a string quintet and two master classes.

October 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week for classical music in Madison, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Certainly the standout event is the debut of Chad Hutchinson (below). He is the new conducting teacher and succeeds James Smith.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra will take place on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The intriguing program features the Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner (you can hear George Solti perform it with the Vienna Philharmonic the YouTube video at the bottom); the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy; the “Mothership,” with electronics, by the American composer Mason Bates; and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that was recently voted the best symphony ever written by more than a hundred conductors.

Here is a link to more about Hutchinson’s impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/chad-hutchinson/

And here is a schedule of other events at the UW:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall conductor Scott Teeple leads the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) in its FREE season opener featuring music by Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland, Roger Zare and Jennifer Higdon. Also featured is guest oboist, faculty member Aaron Hill (below bottom).

Here is a link to program notes:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble/

Also at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Morphy Recital Hall, the internationally renowned guest violist Nobuko Imai (below), from Japan, will give a free public master class in strings and chamber music.

THURSDAY

At noon in Mills Hall, guest violist Nobuko Imai (see above) will perform a FREE one-hour lunchtime concert with the Pro Arte Quartet, which has San Francisco cellist guest Jean-Michel Fonteneau substituting for the quartet’s usual cellist, Parry Karp, who is sidelined temporarily with a finger injury.

The ensemble will perform just one work: a driving and glorious masterpiece, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms.

At 1 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Demondrae Thurman (below), a UW alumnus who is distinguished for playing the euphonium, will give a free public master class in brass.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/master-class-demondrae-thurman-euphonium/

NOTE: The 3:30 master class for singers by Melanie Helton has been CANCELLED. The UW hopes to reschedule it for late fall or spring.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a  photo by Michael R. Anderson) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below middle) will give a FREE concert of three songs cycles by Robert Schumann (the famed “Liederkreis); Maurice Ravel; and UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel (below bottom).

For the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-paul-rowe-voice-martha-fischer-piano-2/

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform under its new conductor Chad Hutchinson. See above.

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. the afternoon concerts by Lyle Anderson at the UW Carillon (below) on Observatory Drive will resume.

Here is a link with a schedule and more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/carillon-concert/2017-10-08/


Classical music: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet and new UW clarinet professor Alicia Lee perform a sublime all-Mozart program

September 30, 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 WORTFM 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.

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet has begun its 2017-18 season amid uncertainties.

The most notable one is the current indisposition of cellist Parry Karp, whose injury to two fingers of his left hand has prevented him from playing for the immediate future.

Quartet members (below in a photo by Rick Langer) are, from left, David Perry and Suzanne Beia, first and second violins; Sally Chisholm, viola: and Parry Karp, cello.

But the group has pressed on bravely, offering an all-Mozart concert last Sunday night in Mills Hall.

The first of two works was the buoyant but challenging String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Replacing Karp was a guest cellist, Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below right and bottom), who is familiar to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s summer concerts.

Fonteneau played elegantly and fitted into the ensemble quite smoothly. And the other three players performed with their accustomed precision and style.

But just one personnel change makes a difference. Clearly missing was the robust tone and firm foundation that Karp has imparted to the ensemble’s playing for so long.

If the G major Quartet is a Mozartean model of its kind, we move to Olympian heights with the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 — a chamber work (below) with only the tiniest number of peers in this scoring.

Joining the quartet this time was a new UW-Madison faculty member, clarinetist Alicia Lee (below).

Petite but totally confident, Lee brought to the string ensemble not the edgy aggressiveness so often heard from clarinetists but rather a glowing mellowness that balanced neatly with the string sounds.

The loveliest moments seemed to me to be the slower passages, and the exquisite slow movement was truly ethereal. (You can hear the Larghetto slow movement, played by clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Preceding the concert was an announcement by Linda Graebner of the consolidation of the Pro Arte Quartet Forward Fund, which is seeking to raise an major endowment for the quartet.

Bolstered by that effort, then, the PAQ is some five years into its second century, determined from many sides to cope with its uncertainties.

NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet’s next performance is this coming Thursday: a FREE performance at NOON in Mills Hall of the String Quintet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Jean-Michel Fonteneau will again be the cellist and the guest artist is the internationally renowned violist Nobuko Imai (below). Imai will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class in strings and chamber music on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.


Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 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.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform “imitative” works by Bach and Vivaldi this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In an original program that is organized much like the music it features, the early music group Madison Bach Musicians (below) will open their new season this weekend with a concert that offers a counterpoint of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi — all done with period instrument and historically informed performance practices.

The two concerts are:

This coming Saturday night, Sept. 23, with a 6:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture by MBM founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), and a 7:30 p.m. concert at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive in Madison.

This coming Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, with 2:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture and a 3:30 p.m. concert at Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

The guest soloist is Steuart Pincombe (below, in a photo by Ryan West), who plays the baroque cello. He will join the Madison Bach Musicians for this innovative concert – an dual exploration of fugues and imitation from the German Bach and the Italian Vivaldi — two masters of the Baroque.

The concert itself is structured much like a fugue. Starting from a single voice, selections alternate between pieces by Vivaldi (below top) and by Bach (below bottom) ―with each new section of the concert requiring an additional performer. (Sorry, no word on specific works except for the finale.)

The program culminates with the entire ensemble performing Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto Grosso alongside a string arrangement of Bach’s own transcription of the same piece. (You can hear the original by Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Advance-sale discount tickets cost $30 for general admission and at available at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Co-op, East and West.

Advance sale online tickets can be found at: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33 for the general public, and $30 for seniors 65-plus with Student Rush tickets costing $10 and going on sale 30 minutes before the pre-concert lecture.


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