The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Composer-performer John Harbison explains why the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is revisiting “The Musical Offering” by Johann Sebastian Bach for a third time

August 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you have ever attended a concert at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below), which opens this Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., you know how insightful the short commentaries by John Harbison invariably are.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Harbison (below), the co-founder and co-artistic director with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison, has been awarded a MacArthur ‘genius grant” and won a Pulitzer Prize, all while teaching at MIT.

The concerts this weekend focus on Johann Sebastian Bach’s incredible “Musical Offering,” part of which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Here is a program note by composer-pianist Harbison, which will probably be complemented by some additional remarks:

”Every musician has the experience of understanding a piece better after they have performed it. A few have careers which welcome (sometimes to a fault) chances to re-perform, hopefully with greater insight, a piece they wish to carry with them and continue to share with colleagues and listeners.

“We have performed two complete Musical Offerings by Bach (below) at Token Creek. Why are we going back to its Trio Sonata? Because it has become necessary, for the fullness of our encounter, to present what is a revision, a reconsideration, a reinforcement of vows, regarding a masterpiece whose carrot remains forever on the stick.

“Such could be said about other elements on this program. One of the subtexts is about the fascinating issue of continuo realization — the piano or harpsichord part — the strange language in which harmonic structure is described to the player in cipher.

“In pieces by Bach this language is strained to the breaking point in works such as The Musical Offering and the E minor sonata for violin and continuo; it is in fact about to disappear, replaced by the explicit writing out, in pitches, all the musical information. Living in the world before and after this decision was taken is one of the preoccupations of this concert.

“In a concert dominated by Bach, the requirement of the other pieces (by Haydn and Harbison) is really sufficient originality and integrity not to be dwarfed or rendered ephemeral by his authority, a high bar, considered carefully by the management.”

For more information about the five concerts of three different programs, including ticket information, go to: http://tokencreekfestival.org

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Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 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 radio 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 for this review.

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra, with solo violinist Paran Amirinazari, closes its seventh season with rousing and intense performances of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

June 9, 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

On Wednesday night, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its seventh season with a rousing program offering three contrasting Russian works.

The opener was the Overture to Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, as realized by Alexander Glazunov. It served to show off the orchestra’s ever-developing string band, solid in tone, if still lacking a little in warmth.

A real gem was the second work, the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev. By contrast with the composer’s first venture in that form — a taut, aggressive affair — this one is more relaxed and jovial, if no less demanding technically.

The soloist was Paran Amirinazari (below), stepping out of her usual concertmaster’s slot into the full spotlight. She handled admirably the great technical demands of her solo role, full of quirky and tricky writing.

But, amid all the spikiness she pointed up handsomely the real and almost neo-Romantic lyrical sweetness that Prokofiev infused into the showiness. (Just listen to the gorgeous second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This is one of the truly great violin concertos, and Amirinazari — the brilliant artistic director of the fabulous Willy Street Chamber Players — demonstrated that adroitly.

The final work was a grand effort: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. This is, of course, one of those “warhorses” about which The Ear has been debating lately. It is thereby the more challenging for an orchestra to present to an audience likely to be familiar with it.

Its calculated lavishness has made it a masterpiece beloved by the public, but it is still fascinating to encounter with close listening. The composer pulled out all his tricks of dazzling orchestration and melodic invention, but in the service of a grand-scaled structure that skillfully manipulates cyclical and cross-referential transformation of themes through the score’s totality.

Maestro Steve Kurr (below) by now has nurtured remarkably solid resources for an orchestra of this kind. The potent brass choir is really well consolidated, backing fine-sounding woodwinds. Kurr made the most of these resources, in a well-rehearsed performance in which the stress on intensity of playing resulted in highly dramatic results, culminating in a truly noble ending.

This was a richly satisfying program, showcasing an ensemble of which Middleton should be button-burstingly proud.


Classical music education: On Sunday, the Madison Youth Choirs presents “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code” with music by Bach, Handel, Grieg, Poulenc, Britten, Holst, Copland and others

May 10, 2017
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ALERT: This week is the season’s last FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. Featured are violinist Maureen McCarty and keyboardist Mark Brampton Smith in music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Antonio de Cabezon, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel, Jules Massenet and Spirituals. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Youth Choirs have sent the following announcement to post:

This spring, Madison Youth Choirs singers are sharpening their critical thinking, analytical and investigative skills as they identify patterns, puzzles and secret structures in a variety of complex musical compositions by artists including Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis Poulenc, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten, Georg Frideric Handel, Aaron Copland, and other composers. The results will be presented this Sunday in “Hide and Seek: Cracking the Musical Code.”

MYC’s Cantabile and Ragazzi choirs will also present excerpts from a world premiere score by Wisconsin-based composer Scott Gendel (below) inspired by the beloved novella The Snow Goose.

Please join us as we dive deep into these classical and contemporary choral works, discovering the great rewards of seeking brilliance and beauty wherever they hide.

The concerts are at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium.

Here is a schedule of times for various groups to perform:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4 p.m. Boychoirs

7 p.m. High School Ensembles.

Tickets are available at the door. General admission is $10, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance. 

See below for complete programs.

These concerts are generously supported by the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation, the John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. This project is also supported by the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond. (You can hear a sample of them singing in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

Here are the concert programs for this Sunday:

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

Lachend…Cesar Bresgen

Two Childhood Songs…Randall Thompson

Fairest Lady (from The Nursery Rhyme Cantata)…Nick Page

Con Gioia

O Lovely Peace (from Judas Maccabeus)…George Frederic Handel

Ewig Dein…Ludwig van Beethoven

Kentucky Jazz Jam…Traditional folk songs, arr. David J. Elliott

Capriccio

Musica est Dei donum optimi…Orlando di Lasso

Herr, du siehst statt gutter Werke auf (BWV 9)…Johann Sebastian Bach

Camino, Caminante…Stephen Hatfield

Think on Me…James Quitman Muholland

Amavolovolo…Traditional Zulu, arr. Rudolf de Beer

Cantilena

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Cantabile

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

Das Hexen Einmal-Eins (The Witch’s One-Times-One)…Franz Joseph Haydn

Purcell

Wind on the Hill…Victoria Ebel-Sabo

Mangwani M’pulele…Traditional Zulu, arr. Theodore Bikel

The Old Carrion Crow…Nova Scotian folk song, arr. Mary Goetze

Britten   

Missa Brevis in D…Benjamin Britten

Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen…J.S. Bach

I’se the B’y…Newfoundland folk song, arr. John Govedas

Holst

Tourdion…Anonymous, 16th century, arr. Pierre Attaignant

Bawo Thixo Somandla (sung in Xhosa)…Mxolisi Matyila

A Miner’s Life…Traditional Irish song, arr. Seth Houston

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Combined Boychoirs

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan

7 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

Domine Deus (from Mass in G Major, BWV 236)…J.S. Bach, arr. Doreen Rao

maggie and milly and molly and may…Vincent Persichetti

Bonny Wood Green…Traditional Irish Ballad, arr. Stephen Hatfield

Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser…Folk song from Quebec, arr. Donald Patriquin

Ragazzi

Zion’s Walls…Setting by Aaron Copland, arr. Glen Koponen

Seigneur, je vous en prie…Francis Poulenc

Brothers, Sing On…Edvard Grieg

Cantabile

Suscepit Israel (from Magnificat in D, BWV 243)… J.S. Bach

Love is a Rain of Diamonds…Gwyneth Walker

No Time…Traditional camp meeting songs, arr. Susan Brumfield

Cantabile and Ragazzi

Excerpts from The Snow Goose…Scott Gendel

Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal…Traditional shape-note, arr. Alice Parker

Combined Choirs and Audience

Blowin’ in the Wind…Bob Dylan


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Classical music: Mozart masterfully melds the emotional and the intellectual, says maestro Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct two performances of “The Magic Flute” this weekend for the Madison Opera. Here is Part 1 of his two-part interview with The Ear

April 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will stage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute this Friday night, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, April 23, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. (Production photos are courtesy of the Arizona Opera, from which the Madison Opera got its sets and costumes.)

Here are an introduction and some details, courtesy of the Madison Opera:

Written in the last year of his life, Mozart’s opera is part fairy tale, part adventure story, and is filled with enchantment.

Set in a fairy-tale world of day and night, the opera follows Prince Tamino and the bird-catcher Papageno as they embark on a mission to rescue Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Pamina had been kidnapped by Sarastro, the leader of a religious order. But it turns out that exactly who is “good” and who is “evil” is not always what it appears.

Along the way to happily-ever-after, Pamina, Tamino and Papageno face many challenges, but are assisted by a magic flute, magic bells, a trio of guiding spirits and their own clear-eyed sense of right and wrong.

“The Magic Flute has been beloved around the world since its 1791 premiere,” says Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “It has been called a fairy tale for both adults and children, with a story that works on many levels, all set to Mozart’s glorious music. I’m so delighted to be sharing it again with Madison, with an incredible cast, director and conductor.”

The opera runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets are $18 to $130.

“The Magic Flute” will be sung in German with English supertitles.

For more about the production and cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/

And also go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2016-2017/the-magic-flute/cast/

Dan Rigazzi, who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for 10 years, makes his Madison Opera debut with this beautiful production that incorporates some steampunk elements into its fairy-tale setting.

Gary Thor Wedow, a renowned Mozart conductor, makes his mainstage debut with this opera, after having conducted Opera in the Park in 2016 and 2012.

Conductor Wedow (below) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

Hello! I’m an American conductor, born in LaPorte, Indiana. A faculty member at The Juilliard School, I spend a lot of time with music of the 18th century — Handel and Mozart and often earlier, like Monteverdi, Purcell and Cavalli. But I conduct everything and grew up in love with the Romantics. I’ve also always done a lot of contemporary music. I love it all.

Mozart’s music sounds so clear and easy or simple, but the reality is quite different, musicians say. What do you strive for and what qualities do you think make for great Mozart playing?

Mozart engages both the brain and the heart. He challenges your intellect with amazing feats of counterpoint, orchestration and structure while tugging at your heart, all the time pulling you along in a deep drama.

Mozart was an Italian melodist with a German contrapuntal, harmonic engine – like an incredible automobile with an Italian slick body and a German motor.

Do you share the view that opera is central to Mozart’s music, even to his solo, chamber and ensemble instrumental music? How so? What is special or unique to Mozart’s operas, and to this opera in particular?

From all accounts, Mozart (below, in his final year) was a huge personality who was full of life and a keen observer of the human condition; his letters are full of astute, often merciless and sometimes loving evaluations of family, colleagues and patrons.

Mozart’s music speaks of the human condition: its passions, loves and hopes— no matter what genre. His music is innately dramatic and primal, going immediately to the most basic and universal human emotions with breathtaking nuance, variety and depth. (You can hear the Overture to “The Magic Flute,” performed by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra under James Levine, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tomorrow: Tricks to conducting Mozart and what to pay special attention to in this production of The Magic Flute.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform Bach’s “St. John Passion” this Friday night and Saturday night in authentic early music style

April 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday  and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.

(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)

At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”

This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/st-john-passion-to-be-performed-on-all-historical-period/article_0e6e3d51-c03e-5803-9230-faed6a48ed1d.html

Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:

Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.

As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.

From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)

I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.

 

The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.

Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.

For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).

The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:

  • Gut-strung violins, violas, cellos, and bass played with baroque bows which facilitate articulation and phrase grouping
  • Early 18th-century single-keyed wooden traverso flutes and single-keyed wooden oboes―uniquely warm-sounding and clear-toned. Plus the baroque ancestor of the modern English horn, the tenor oboe da caccia
  • A baroque chamber organ with wooden pipes tuned in 18th-century Well Temperament
  • And specialty instruments—even by 18th-century standards. The viola da gamba, featured during the tombeau– or tomb-like Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled) aria heard after Jesus’ death; and two violas d’amore, delicate and velvet toned, replete with sympathetic strings for a haunting after-glow of sound. (You can hear that aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.

Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.

The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.

MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a  photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.

Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

http://www.adamneiman.com

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

adam-neiman-2017

There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.

Chopinphoto

Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.

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In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


Classical music: The UW Choral Union delivers an eclectic non-seasonal program of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Bernstein with power and lyricism

December 12, 2016
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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.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

Eschewing any seasonal or holiday connections, the UW-Madison Choral Union (below) gave its December concert last Friday night with a program of three “B’s”.

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Well, two of the B’s are familiar ones. But in place of Bach, we got Leonard Bernstein, taking first place in reverse chronological order — his Chichester Psalms, dating from 1965.

This three-movement work probably represents Bernstein’s most important choral score. It sets texts in the original Hebrew, the middle movement calling for a boy treble to represent the young David in the rendering of Psalm 131 — a function here filled bravely by young Simon Johnson (below, front left) of the Madison Youth Choirs.

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The platoon of percussionists in the first two movements confirms the composer’s flashy “modernism.” To be sure, there are some characteristic melodic twists that proclaim the composer familiar to us, and the swaying melodic tune of the third movement is really lovely.

But Bernstein (below) did not know what to do with it besides repeating it obsessively. Bernstein simply was not a savvy master of choral writing, and I firmly believe that this work—a trivial cross between Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bernstein’s own Broadway musical West Side Story—would not merit much attention were it not for Bernstein’s name on it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: You can decide on the work’s merits for yourself by listening to the live performance, conducted by the composer himself, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leonard Bernstein composing in 1955

Just how inadequate Bernstein’s choral sense was emerged clearly with the next work, the short ode for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, Nänie, Op. 82.

The title adapts a Greek word for a lament, and Friedrich Schiller’s German text evokes the death of beauty in the death of Achilles. Brahms was among the supreme choral masters, and this particular example is one of several of his “minor” choral works that we hear too rarely.

brahmsBW

The second half of the program was devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Op. 86. No, not the monumental Missa solemnis of the composer’s last years when (as with the Ninth Symphony’s finale) he had transcended the realities of choral writing. This earlier Mass setting, dating from 1807, was in the direct line of Mass settings for the Esterházy family composed by the aged Haydn.

But to Haydn’s incorporation of symphonic structure into Mass composition, Beethoven (below) brought his own strongly progressive personality, and a remarkable quality of melodic and thematic invention. This is a lovely work, and choirs who fling themselves doggedly against the Missa solemnis ought sometimes to revel in this beautiful work instead.

Beethoven big

The forces arrayed included a solo quartet (below, in the front from left) are bass John Loud, tenor Jiabao Zhang and sopranos Jessica Kasinski and Anna Polum.

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The UW Chamber Orchestra proved able. But the star was, of course, the Choral Union chorus itself. Its diction worked from indistinguishable Hebrew through respectable German to really lucid Latin. Above all, it made mighty, full-blooded sound that bolstered Beethoven’s lyricism with powerful projection.

Once again, conductor Beverly Taylor (below) has gone beyond stale conventions to bring us valued exposure to music outside the conventional boundaries.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE


Classical music education: This Sunday the Madison Youth Choirs will present their Winter Concert Series celebrating “Shakespeare 400 “

December 6, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This winter, the Madison Youth Choirs are joining cultural institutions around the world by celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (below) and his ongoing legacy.

shakespeare BW

Singers of various ages will perform musical settings from the plays Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest by composers including William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Henry Purcell, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten, Giuseppe Verdi, Cesar Franck, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, John Rutter and others.

Examining the role that motif, tension, structure and rhythm play in the repertoire and Shakespeare’s vast body of work, the choirs will explore the elements that combine to create compelling art that stands the test of time.

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The MYC Winter Concerts, “Shakespeare 400,” will take place this Sunday, Dec. 11, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ (below), 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall stadium.

Here is the schedule: 1:30 p.m. Girl choirs; 4 p.m. Boy choirs; 7 p.m. High School Ensembles

Tickets will be available at the door. Admission to each of the three concerts is $10 for the general public, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concert 2014

PROGRAMS

Here is the repertoire for the MYC 2016 Winter Concert Series “Shakespeare 400”:

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Hey Ho! To the Greenwood” by William Byrd

“Spirits” by Douglas Beam

“Orpheus With His Lute” by Ralph Vaughan Williams

“Double, Double Toil and Trouble” by Leeann Starkey

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Con Gioia

“When Icicles Hang by the Wall” by David Lantz III

“You Spotted Snakes” by Toby Young

“Ban Ban Caliban” by Dan Forrest

Capriccio

“Hark! The Echoing Air” by Henry Purcell

“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by Sarah Quartel

“Philomel with Melody” and “I Will Wind Thee in My Arms” by Cary Ratliff

“It Was a Lover and His Lass” by John Rutter

Cantabile

When Icicles Hang” by Stephen Hatfield

“Che faceste” from Macbeth (sung in Italian) by Giuseppi Verdi

Madison Youth Choirs 2

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

“One December, Bright and Clear” Traditional Catalonian carol, arr. By Wilberg

“Panis Angelicus” by Cesar Franck

Purcell

“Chairs to Mend” by William Hayes

“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by John Rutter (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)

“The Coasts of High Barbary” Traditional English sea song, arr. By Julseth-Heinrich

Britten

“Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” by Roger Quilter

“Full Fathom Five” by John Ireland

“Who is Silvia” by Franz Schubert

Holst

“Full Fathom Five” by Robert Johnson

“Sing We and Chant It” by Thomas Morley

Ragazzi

“Come Away, Death” by Gerald Finzi

“The Witching Hour” by Brandon Ayres

Madison Youth Choirs Con Gioia Karen Holland

7 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“The Willow Song” by Arthur Sullivan

“Willow, Willow, Willow” by Charles H.H. Parry

“Fair Oriana Seeming to Wink at Folly” by Robert Jones

“You Spotted Snakes” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Felix Mendelssohn

“Give Them Thy Fingers” by Stefan Kalmer

Ragazzi

“Four Arms, Two Necks, One Wreathing” by Thomas Weelkes

“Come Away, Death” by Gerald Finzi

“And Draw Her Home with Music” by Nancy Hill Cobb

“The Witching Hour” by Brandon Ayres

Cantabile

“Che faceste” from Macbeth (sung in Italian) by Giuseppi Verdi

“Come Away, Death” by Roger Quilter

Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten

“When Icicles Hang” by Stephen Hatfield

Cantabile and Ragazzi

“Ave Verum Corpus” by William Byrd

“Jingle, Bells!” by James Pierpont, arr. by David Wilcocks

madison-youth-choirs-older-boys-2016

These concerts are generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank and the Wisconsin Arts Board.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community.

Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

For further information, contact: Nicole Sparacino, Madison Youth Choirs, Nicole@madisonyouthchoirs.org or call (608) 238-7464


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