The Well-Tempered Ear

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

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet closes out its season with polished, precise and emotionally intense performances of contrasting music by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Caroline Shaw

May 16, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

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. 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 Ancora String Quartet (below) is closing its season with a cluster of concerts around the area, including a central one Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street in Madison.

Of the three works in the program, the centerpiece was the Entr’acte by the American musician and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (below, in a photo by Kait Moreno). It was written in 2011 when Shaw was 29, and has won some acclaim over the years.

It is cast roughly in the traditional form of a minuet and trio, but its point is less any musical substance than the invention of new and utterly eccentric ways of string playing for ear-catching sound effects. Many of those effects are, to be sure, intriguing.

Surrounding this was a pair of quartets seemingly very distinct from each other but related.

The first published quartet, in A major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn (below), was written in the wake of a romantic song he wrote and whose motives he then used in the quartet.

Emotional suggestions aside, however, it is notable as a darker and more intense work than his subsequent ones in this form. It was composed in 1827, when Mendelssohn was 18, but also the year in which Beethoven died. And it is the shadow of Beethoven, and of Beethoven’s innovations in his later quartets, that hangs over the Mendelssohn work.

Clearly the young master was trying to see how he could absorb the older master’s progressive style into his own still emerging one. I think he found in the process that the two could not be reconciled, and so his subsequent quartets were to be in a less stressful vein.

Against that 1827 work, we were then offered a composition from Beethoven’s own earlier years when he was 29 or 30.  This was the final quartet in the set of six published as his Op. 18.

This Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven (below) in B-flat major — the program had it mistakenly in G major — is a Janus-faced work, its first two movements still rooted in the late 18th-century background, but with a scherzo full of quirks and tricks that point to the future, and a finale that plays on emotional contrasts.

Its opening Malinconia – or melancholic – music is contested by music of rousing joy, somewhat prefiguring Beethoven’s absorption with recovering his health in the Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving) of his late string quartet, Op. 132. (You can hear the two contrasting moods and themes in the last movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For all three of these scores, a quartet member gave some introductory comments. (Below, first violinist Wes Luke introduces the work by Caroline Shaw.)

Members of the Ancora String Quartet are violinists Wes Luke and Robin Rynan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. As a group, the Ancora players displayed intensity and absorption as well as polished precision, in a program of contrasts.


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Classical music: The veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opens its season with a variety of vocal and instrumental works

October 15, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The new season’s first concert by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble opened in Madison on Saturday evening, Oct. 13, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. It offered, as always, a program of wide range and variety.

There were nine performers involved this time, two of them singers — the familiar UW-Madison soprano Mimi Fulmer and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo.

Fulmer sang an Italian cantata of contested authorship, with Sigrun Paust on recorder (below). Later, Sañudo sang a Latin motet by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, with helpers (violinist Nathan Giglierano, Monica Steger on recorder, Eric Miller on gamba and Max Yount on harpsichord).

The two joined in three items from Claudio Monteverdi’s Third Book of Madrigals (below). They were a bit of a twist, for they were meant for five singers. So the other three parts were taken by three viola da gamba players (Anton TenWolde, Miller, Charlie Rasmussen) — which actually proved not the best way to project the madrigal textures.

The bulk of the program was instrumental.

Variations, or “divisions” made two appearances. From the obscure August Kuehnel, there was an aria given long elaborations by two gambas (Miller, Rasmussen). Another set of variations, from a collection published by John Playford, was dashed off by violinist Giglierano, with gamba (Miller) and harpsichord (Steger) for continuo (below).

The duo form was also represented by such a piece for two cellos (below), by Tommaso Giordani, played by TenWolde and Rasmussen.  A cello sonata by a certain Franceso Alborea was the solo spot for TenWolde, with Rasmussen and Steger on continuo.

With a more conventional ensemble, we heard a Trio Sonata in A minor by Georg Phiipp Telemann, with Giglierano and Faust, plus TenWolde and Steger as the continuo. (You can hear the Telemann Trio Sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom)

It was for the final item, as a grand finale (below), that all seven of the instrumentalists joined in a little ballet suite by Boismortier.

Music lovers who attend concerts such as these should remember that the works presented were, by and large, not intended for presentation to a “public.” This is mostly “parlor” music (“chamber,” you recall), meant for the players to exercise their playing skills for themselves and any friends.

There are masterpieces in this literature, but seeking them out is not the primary goal of the WBE. Rather, that is to allow performers to test and show off their skills in music they find challenging and satisfying. The pleasures which that gives to an audience are the bonus.

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble has been around as a performing group in Madison since 1997. As such, it is the oldest surviving ensemble in town devoted to early music, and might be said to have inaugurated the taste and audience for that literature.

Such taste and audience have now expanded extensively, but the WBE continues to make its own chamber contributions with unfailing devotion.

For more information, about the WBE and its upcoming season, go to: https://wisconsinbaroque.weebly.com


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Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann

September 6, 2018
3 Comments

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. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.


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