The Well-Tempered Ear

Music con Brio starts an annual Black Composers project with a FREE virtual concert

July 1, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from Carol Carlson, the co-founder and Executive Director of the Madison-based Music con Brio (below), who is a violinist and holds a doctorate in music from the UW-Madison:

Hello friends,

Happy summer! I hope you are able to enjoy some rest, relaxation and fun in the sun.

I am emailing you because Music con Brio embarked on an exciting new project this year, and I want to share it with you.

In an effort to diversify our repertoire and guest artists, we have launched our new “Music by Black Composers” project. Last winter, our staff chose four pieces of music by Black composers and made student-accessible arrangements of them. 

We then taught these new pieces during our online lessons this spring. On May 8, we gathered together outside at the Goodman Community Center, with four phenomenal local Black guest artists, to professionally record all four pieces.

And now, in lieu of our regular Community Concert Series this year, we are thrilled to present our first-ever Virtual Community Concert!

Click on the link to YouTube video at the bottom to watch and hear the 12-minute performance. Once there, click on Show More to see the composers, pieces and performers.

We are incredibly proud of our students and staff for all their hard work making this so successful. I’m sure you will enjoy their performance!

Please do feel free to pass the video along to anyone else you think might be interested in watching it.

And if you feel so inclined, we would really appreciate a donation in support of this work, which we plan to do every year from now on. To support Music con Brio and our Black Composers project by making a secure, tax-deductible donation, go to: https://www.musicconbrio.org/donate/ 

Thank you so much for your support! We hope to see you at a live concert again sometime soon!

If you wish to know more about Music con Brio, go to: https://www.musicconbrio.org


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Live music continues its comeback from the pandemic. Today is Make Music Madison with free concerts citywide of many kinds of music. Here are guides with details

June 21, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Live music continues to make its comeback from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The past week saw live outdoor concerts by Con Vivo, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Today – Monday, June 21 –is Make Music Madison 2021.

It is part of an annual worldwide phenomenon that started in France in 1982. It has since spread globally and is now celebrated in more than 1,000 cities in 120 countries.

Yet in the U.S., Wisconsin is one of only five states that celebrate Make Music Day statewide. The other states are Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico and Vermont. In there U.S., more than 100 cities will take part in presenting free outdoor concerts. Globally, the audience will be in the millions.

The day is intended to be a way to celebrate the annual Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Technically, the solstice occurred in Wisconsin last night, on Father’s Day, at 10:32 p.m. CDT.

But The Ear is a forgiving kind. This will be the first full day of summer, so the spirit of the celebration lives on despite the calendar.

You can see – the composer Igor Stravinsky advised listening with your eyes open – and hear 38 different kinds of music. The choices include blues, bluegrass, Celtic, roots music, gospel, rock, jazz, classical, folk, African music, Asian music, world music, children’s music (see the YouTube video at the bottom) and much more. It will be performed by students and teachers,  amateurs and professionals, individuals and groups.

Here is a link to a press release about the overall event: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/make-music-day-2021-announces-updated-schedule-of-events-301304107.html

And here is a link to the global home website — with more background information and a live-stream video of a gong tribute to the who died of COVID — about the festival: https://www.makemusicday.org

The local events will take place from 5 a.m. to midnight. All are open to the public without admission, and safety protocols will be observed.

Here is a guide to local events that allow you to search particulars of the celebration by area of the city, genre of music, performers, venues and times. If you are a classical fan, in The Ear’s experience you might want to pay special attention to Metcalfe’s market in the Hilldale mall.

Here is a link to the home webpage of Make Music Madison: https://www.makemusicmadison.org

Here is a link to the event calendar with maps and schedules as well as alternative plans in case of rain and various menus for searching: https://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/

Happy listening!

In the Comment section, please leave your observations and suggestions or advice about the quality and success of the festival and the specific events you attended.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Here is a collaborative obituary for music critic, radio host, performer and gay pioneer Jess Anderson, who died in January at 85

March 7, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

In late January of this year, Jess Anderson (below) — a longtime friend, devoted musician and respected music critic – died at 85.

The Ear promised then that when more was known or written, it would be posted on this blog.

That time has come.

Jess was a polymath, a Renaissance Man, as the comments below attest to time and again.

For the past several years, he suffered from advancing dementia and moved from his home of 56 years to an assisted living facility. He had contracted COVID-19, but died from a severe fall from which he never regained consciousness.

Jess did not write his own obituary and he had no family member to do it. So a close friend – Ed Wegert (below) – invited several of the people who knew Jess and worked with him, to co-author a collaborative obituary. We are all grateful to Ed for the effort the obituary took and for his caring for Jess in his final years.

In addition, the obituary has some wonderful, not-to-be-overlooked photos of Jess young and old, at home, with friends, sitting at the piano and at his custom-built harpsichord.

It appears in the March issue of Our Lives, a free statewide LGBTQ magazine that is distributed through grocery stores and other retail outlets as well as free subscriptions. Here is a link to the magazine’s home webpage for details about it: https://ourliveswisconsin.com.

That Jess was an exceptional and multi-talented person is obvious even from the distinguished names of the accomplished people who contributed to the obituary:

They include:

Chester Biscardi (below), who is an acclaimed prize-winning composer, UW-Madison graduate, composer and teacher of composition at Sarah Lawrence College.

John Harbison (below), the MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches at MIT and co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the summer.

Rose Mary Harbison (below), who attended the UW-Madison with Jess and became a professional performing and teaching violinist who co-directs the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Steve Miller (below), a close friend who became a bookmaker and is now a professor at the University of Alabama.

The Ear, who knew Jess over many decades, was also invited to contribute.

Here is a link to the joint obituary in Our Lives magazine, a free LGBTQ periodical that you can find in local grocery store and other retail outlets: https://ourliveswisconsin.com/article/remembering-jess-anderson/?fbclid=IwAR027dzv2YqRUNlYF1cF6JyXnEcQxAwcprPYbtBQCs3rYt0Nu847W_xbjpk

Feel free to leave your own thoughts about and memories of Jess in the comment section.

It also seems a fitting tribute to play the final chorus from The St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. You can hear it in the YouTube video below. It is, if memory serves me well, the same piece of sublime music that Jess played when he signed off from hosting his Sunday morning early music show for many years on WORT-FM 89.9.

 


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Classical music: This year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock proved a 10-day success. Here is a news update with a date for 2021

August 31, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (below top) about this year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock and the dates for next year’s festival when amateur and professional musicians will again celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):

Greetings! I hope this finds you well and finding ways to maintain equilibrium in these tumultuous times.

I’d like to thank you all again for making our 10-day 2020 Virtual Festival (one example is in the YouTube video at the bottom) such a success.

After the sad cancellation of our in-person festival, it was wonderful to see so many of you playing and singing Bach! It reminded me of the Dr. Seuss book; the COVID Grinch may have stolen the trappings of our festival, but we just held it anyway! (Below are members of the Suzuki Strings from a previous BATC festival.)

With the summer over, the BATC board of directors is looking ahead to next year’s festival, which will take place on Saturday, March 20, 2021. We don’t yet know what format it will take — whether in-person, virtual or some combination — but we will explore all available options.

If you have suggestions, please contact us.

Meanwhile, with so many concerts canceled, I hope you can find other ways to include music in your lives. I’ll continue posting Bach-related articles and performance links on our Facebook page

If you have the means, please consider donating to artists and ensembles whose livelihoods have vanished for the foreseeable future.

Thank you again for being part of the BATC community, and please take care.

 


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Classical music: Meet Alexander Gonzalez, the new assistant band director at the UW-Madison who is also a UW alumnus

August 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release from the UW-Madison about its new assistant band director. Like many of his musician colleagues at the UW-Madison, he is likely to see his duties curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

After the completion of a national search, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is pleased to announce the hiring of Alexander Gonzalez (below, in a photo by Robb McCormick) as the new assistant director of bands.

Gonzalez will conduct the Tuesday Night University Band, assist the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, direct the Men’s Hockey Band, and teach courses in conducting.

Gonzalez comes to Wisconsin after studying conducting at Ohio State University as a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate, where he worked with all concert ensembles and the marching band. Alongside his studies, he was the director of the Professional School Orchestra and taught conducting at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music.

“We are thrilled to welcome Alexander and his wife Haley to the University of Wisconsin Marching Band family,” said Associate Director of Bands Corey Pompey (below). “Alexander is a supremely gifted musician and pedagogue whose role is integral to the success of our band program. He is thoughtful, engaging and direct. Our students will benefit in immeasurable ways from what he has to offer.”

Prior to his studies in Ohio, Gonzalez was a public school educator in Colorado and Florida, where he taught an array of courses at middle school and high school levels.

While participating in his Master’s degree in Wind Conducting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was the director of the Middleton High School Symphony Orchestra’s Wind Octet and worked in education and community outreach with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Alexander Gonzalez conducting the UW-Madison’s University Band in Michael J. Miller’s “Tribute for Band” in Mills Hall in 2014.)

“I am beyond excited to return to a place I consider home,” said Gonzalez (below). “The bands at UW-Madison were integral in forming the educator I am today. And I am equally excited to create a musical environment where present and future students can feel as loved, challenged and respected as I did.”

Gonzalez holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Florida and is an active member in the National Association for Music Education, the College Band Directors National Association, the National Band Association, Phi Mu Alpha, Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma.

“Professor Gonzalez brings with him a wealth of knowledge from his background in teaching music at the public school and college levels,” said Director of Bands Scott Teeple  (below). “He is an extraordinary musician, pedagogue and individual. Alexander’s contributions to the UW Band program and the Mead Witter School of Music will deepen the musical experiences of our students. We consider ourselves fortunate to have him as a member of our team.”

 


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the last three pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

July 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The ambitious project has now ended.

Two weeks ago was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook as well as on YouTube and the internet.

Last week saw the last five compositions and the end of the project.

This blog has already posted the first seven compositions and performances.

Today you can hear the last three.

The project, funded by the federal government, is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19. Below are photos with links to the performances.

The eighth piece is “Lobelia,” a work for solo cello composed by Ashkan Behzadi (below top) and performed by Mariel Roberts of the Wet Ink Ensemble (below bottom, in a photo by Gannushkin).

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/behzadi-roberts.html

The ninth piece is “A Shared Solitary” for solo violin and electronics by composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh (below top) and performed by Jannina Norpoth (below bottom, in a photo by Laura Ise) of the PUBLIQuartet.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/nourbakhsh-norpoth.html

The 10th and final piece is “Have and Hold” for solo singing flutist and electronics composed by Allison Loggins-Hull (below top, in a photo by Rafael Rios) and performed by Nathalie Joachim (below bottom, in a photo by Erin Patrice O-Brien), both of the group Flutronix.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/loggins-hull-joachim.html

On the same page as the performance you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what it strives to mean or express.

You can use links to go to the past performances and premieres, to all 10 commissions.

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the individual pieces?

Do you have one or more favorites?

What do you think of the project?

How successful is it?

Will you like to hear more by composers of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a program of “Live, Laugh and Love” this Sunday afternoon. Music by Brahms, Puccini, Bizet, Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others is featured

February 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday afternoon, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform a varied program of vocal music.

The “Live, Laugh and Love” program includes Johannes Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (New Love Song Waltzes) along with a wide variety of solos, duets and ensembles encompassing music by Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet, Clara Schumann, John Dowland, Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The singers will accompanied by duo-pianists Mark Brampton Smith and Sherri Hansen.

Brahms (below) completed his second group of “Love Song Waltzes” in 1874, setting poems that are alternately passionate, brooding, fiery and contemplative. (You can hear some excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Building on the success of his first installment of Liebeslieder from five years earlier, Brahms’ music for the later set is more deeply emotional, mirroring the composer’s own complex romantic entanglements. Out of all Brahms’ female friends, he seems to have maintained the deepest affection for Clara Schumann (below), whose music appears on the first half of our program.

Classic arias and duets from the operas La Bohème, and The Pearl Fishers, and contemporary selections by Stephen Sondheim and Hamilton composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, round out the program to be performed in the intimate setting of the historic auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A wine-and-cheese reception will follow the concert.

Advance tickets are available online for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org or Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir. The ticket price at the door is $20.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Artistic director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) – who heads the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera performs Verdi’s popular “La Traviata” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall

October 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a traditional production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Lost One), one of the most popular operas in history.

According to the website www.operasense.com — specifically at https://www.operasense.com/most-popular-operas/ — it has been the most performed opera in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” (Below are photos by Matthew Staver from the production by Opera Colorado in Denver, which features the same sets and costumes that will be used in the production by Madison Opera.)

Performances in Overture Hall are this Friday night, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 2:30 p.m. The opera will be sung in Italian with projected supertitles in English. The running time, with two intermissions, is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

PRE-OPERA TALKS are on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. One hour prior to performances, general director Kathryn Smith will give an entertaining and informative talk about “La Traviata.” The talks are free to ticket holders.

POST-OPERA Q&A’s are on Friday and Sunday and will also take place in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center. Audience members can join general director Kathryn Smith immediately after the performance to ask questions about what they have just seen. The sessions are free to ticket holders.

Tickets are $18-$135 with student and group discounts available. For information about tickets, the production and the cast, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org

Set in mid-19th century Paris, “La Traviata” tells of Violetta, a courtesan who tries to follow her heart. But societal pressures force her to leave the man she loves, and an incurable illness takes care of the rest.

Glittering parties contrast with quiet desperation, and ravishing music underscores all-consuming emotions.

“Only a few operas ever achieve a truly beloved status — and “La Traviata” is one of them,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). For being over 150 years old, its story is quite modern: a young woman trying to overcome the limitations that society has placed on her because of her class and gender, searching for happiness yet willing to make sacrifices.

“Plus it is full of very famous music, from the ‘Brindisi’ to ‘Sempre Libera’ and more,” Smith adds. “It’s always a pleasure to have a new generation discover this work, and to share it with opera omnivores who know it well.” (You can hear Renée Fleming sing Violetta’s signature aria “Sempre libera” (Always Free) at the Royal Opera House in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“La Traviata” is based on the play and novel “La Dame aux Camélias” (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas the son (below top), which were in turn based on his real-life relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis (below bottom), who died in 1847 of consumption.

The play was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1852, and Verdi (below) turned it into an opera the following year.

While the first production of the opera was not a success, due to the poor singing of two cast members and the physical unsuitability of one singer, its second production was acclaimed, and the opera swiftly became one of the most performed operas in the world, a status it has not lost.

Both the opera and the play have inspired countless films, including “Camille” (with Greta Garbo), “Pretty Woman” (with Julia Roberts) and “Moulin Rouge” (with Nicole Kidman).

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) says: “”La Traviata” has been a part of my artistic life since the very beginning of my career – it’s one of the reasons I so wanted to conduct opera. The heartfelt and tragic story of a love that was cut short by both health and cultural circumstances is still deeply moving today.

“The role of Violetta is a tour-de-force that ranges from high-flying coloratura to dramatic vocalism, with a strongly-etched character. I love this opera so deeply and look forward to conducting it for our audience.”

Returning to Madison Opera as Violetta is Cecilia Violetta Lopez (she played Carmen in Madison), whom The Washington Post reviewer called “as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen.”

Mackenzie Whitney  (below, who appeared in “Florencia en el Amazonas” for the Madison Opera) returns as Alfredo, the young man for whom she sacrifices everything.

Weston Hurt (below) debuts with Madison Opera as Alfredo’s father Germont, whose disapproval of his son’s relationship with Violetta has tragic consequences.

Madison Opera’s Studio Artists are featured: Kirsten Larson as Flora, Emily Secor as Annina, Benjamin Hopkins as Gastone, and Stephen Hobe as the Marquis d’Obigny.

Rounding out the cast are Benjamin Sieverding (Romeo and Juliet) as Dr. Grenvil and Benjamin Major in his Madison Opera debut as Baron Douphol.

Fenton Lamb (below) directs this traditional production in her Madison Opera debut.

Maestro John DeMain conducts the singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The Madison Opera’s production of “La Traviata” is sponsored by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Bert and Diane Adams, Carla and Fernando Alvarado, Chun Lin, Patricia and Stephen Lucas, Millie and Marshall Osborn, Kato and David Perlman, the Wallach Family, Helen Wineke, Capitol Lakes, and the Wisconsin Arts Board.


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
7 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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