The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra uses a new website and a new brochure to announce its new Masterworks season plus other innovations

May 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

In many ways, there is much that is familiar or tried-and-true about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski) and its new Masterworks season for 2020-21.

But in other ways it seems as if the WCO is reinventing and rebranding itself – perhaps under the direction of its new CEO Joe Loehnis – as the ensemble starts a double anniversary: its 60th season of existence and its 20th year under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell (below in a photo by Alex Cruz).

As in past years, the WCO programs feature a mix of familiar composers and works with new and neglected ones. It also features both new and returning guest soloists.

Start with what’s new.

The new WCO home website – like the new brochure that has been mailed out — has been redesigned, with more visuals and more information about the 34-member orchestra. The Ear finds both the new brochure and the new home page to be more attractive, better organized and easier to use. Take a look for yourself: https://wcoconcerts.org

There also seems to be a heightened emphasis on donations and raising money, including a new organization called “Friends” that brings special benefits for $30 or even more perks at $8 a month.

And the website seems more customer-friendly. There is a section on the website about “What to Expect,” which includes how to choose seats, how to dress, when to applaud and so forth. There is also a portal for streaming events and concerts.

There is more, much more, including the pre-concert dinners for the Masterworks concerts and the culturally diverse programs for the postponed Concerts on the Square (below), to run this summer on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. (NOT the usual Wednesdays at 7 p.m.) from July 28 to Sept. 1.

There seems to be more emphasis on Sewell, who this year provides extensive first-person notes about each program and the guest artists. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Sewell discuss the new Masterworks season with Wisconsin Public Radio host and WCO announcer Norman Gilliland.)

This season will see two performances of Handel’s “Messiah”: one on Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Blackhawk Church in Middleton; and another downtown on Sunday, Dec. 20, at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center.

The Masterworks series of concerts – held on Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – will begin in late November rather than in late January. The six concerts include five new ones and the postponed appearance of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, whose appearance this season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, on May 14.

Two of the concerts – on two Saturdays, Feb. 20 and April 10 – will also be performed in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts (below).

You can read more about the community outreach and music education programs, especially the Youth and Education programs. They include the free Family Series and “Side by Side” concerts (below, in a photo by Mike DeVries for The Capital Times, WCO concertmaster Suzanne Beia, right, tutors a WYSO student); the Super Strings educational program; and the Young Artists Concerto Competition for grades 9-12.

Here are the Masterworks series:

NOV. 20Pianist John O’Conor (below) returns in a program of the Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Septet by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Luigi Cherubini.

JAN. 15Cellist Amid Peled (below, in a photo by Lisa Mazzucco) returns in a program of Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitry Kabalevsky and the Andante by Jacques Offenbach; plus the Wind Serenade in D minor by Antonin Dvorak; and the Symphony No. 34 by Mozart.

FEB. 19Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky (below) in returns in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires”; plus the Suite for Strings by Leos Janacek.

MARCH 19Grammy-winning Spanish guitarist Mabel Millán (below) making her U.S, debut in an all-Spanish program that features the Concierto del Sur (Concerto of the South) by Manuel Ponce; the Sinfonietta in D major by Ernesto Halffter; and the overture “Los Esclavos Felices” (The Happy Slaves) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

APRIL 9Pianist Michael Mizrahi (below), who teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wis., on the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven plus the Serenade No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.

MAY 14Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (below) in the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera; plus the Sinfonietta by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony no. 88 by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Single tickets, which go on sale in July, are $15 to $80. Season subscriptions are available now with seat preference through July 1, bring a discounted price with an extra 10 percent off for first-time subscribers.

For more information, go to the website at https://wcoconcerts.org; call 608 257-0638; or mail a subscription form to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Attn: Subscriptions; PO Box171, Madison, WI 53701-0171.

 


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Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear native son Kenneth Woods conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot. Here are two reviews, one a rave and the other very positive

March 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear native son and guest conductor Kenneth Woods and guest Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

Woods (below), once a student in Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) and a student at Memorial High School, has established an international reputation by leading the English Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado MahlerFest and the British Elgar Festival, and by making many highly praised recordings.

At 26, Pouliot (below in a photo by Jeff Fasano) is a rising star, thanks to winning a major competition in Montreal and other prizes. (You can hear him play “Lotus Land,” composed by Cyril Scott and arranged by Fritz Kreisler, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program is: Symphony No. 96 “Miracle” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) by Richard Strauss.

For more background and program notes, information about purchasing tickets ($19-$95) and The Ear’s detailed interview with Woods about growing up in Madison, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/classical-music-accomplished-native-son-kenneth-woods-returns-this-weekend-to-conduct-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-in-music-by-haydn-mendelssohn-and-richard-strauss-he-talks-to-the-ear-about-what/

The opening performance on Friday night received excellent reviews. Here are two major ones:

Here is the rave review that veteran critic Greg Hettmansberger (below) wrote for his blog “What Greg Says,” which is well worth following:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2020/03/07/a-healthy-orchestra-in-strong-hands/

And here is a largely positive review for The Capital Times newspaper written by freelancer Matt Ambrosio (below), who received his doctorate in music theory from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/soloist-blake-pouloit-brings-mso-audience-to-its-feet-with/article_d559c040-87d8-506d-8120-ae77b0d5481b.html/

You can be a critic too.

If you heard the concert, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear

 


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Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground

February 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Background discussions, lectures and documentaries lead up to Madison Opera’s production of the LGBTQ-themed, McCarthy-era opera “Fellow Travelers” on Feb. 7 and 9

January 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera continues its foray into 21st-century operas with Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers on Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

(Production photos below are by Dan Norman of the Minnesota Opera production, which is being encored in Madison. You can see and hear a preview of the Minnesota Opera production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The acclaimed 2016 opera is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. The “Lavender Scare,” in which suspected homosexuals saw their livelihoods and lives destroyed, has enveloped the U.S. government. (Below are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.) 

Against this backdrop, Timothy Laughlin, a recent college graduate and an ardent supporter of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, meets Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

The two men (below, Acosta on the right) embark on a relationship, tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit. Their friends and colleagues fill out a story of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions.

With a libretto by Greg Pierce that is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times and tells of the very human consequences of prejudice and fear, with compassion, nuance and incredible beauty.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text.

The performance will last approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

For more information, go to: www.madisonopera.org/FellowTravelers

Tickets are $26 to $118 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to the Overture Center box office at 201 State Street or call it at (608) 258-4141 or go online to www.MadisonOpera.org/Tickets

“When I saw Fellow Travelers, I knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison,” says Madison’s Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with the haunting music and the well-drawn characters, and the emotional impact at the end was even more powerful than I had anticipated. I am truly looking forward to sharing this modern masterpiece with our community.”

Peter Rothstein (below) directs this production in his Madison Opera debut. Rothstein, who received his MFA from the UW-Madison, directed Fellow Travelers for Minnesota Opera in 2018.

The Twin City Arts Reader called his production “equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.”

Making his Madison Opera debut as Timothy Laughlin is Andres Acosta (below), who performed this role to acclaim at the Minnesota Opera.

Ben Edquist (below), who debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, sings Hawkins Fuller.

Adriana Zabala (below, of Florencia en el Amazonas) returns as Mary Johnson, who works with Hawkins and is a friend and voice of conscience for him and Timothy.

Returning to Madison Opera are Sidney Outlaw (below top, of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) as Tommy McIntyre, a political insider, and Alan Dunbar (below bottom, in a photo by Roy Hellman, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in multiple roles, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and a government interrogator who puts Hawkins through a lie detector test.

Andrew Wilkowske (below) debuts in several roles, including Senator Potter and General Arlie.

Filling out the cast is Madison Opera Studio Artist Emily Secor (below top) as Miss Lightfoot, who works in Hawkins’ office; soprano Cassandra Vasta (below bottom) as Lucy, whomHawkins marries; and Madison Opera Studio Artist Stephen Hobe in five different roles.

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) conducts, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” is sponsored by: Fran Klos; Sally and Mike Miley; David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd; John Lemke and Pamela Oliver; Sharyn and Carl Stumpf; and Dane Arts. Community events are sponsored by The Capital Times.

RELATED EVENTS

In addition to the two performances, Madison Opera offers several events to allow deeper exploration of the opera and its historical background.

They include a free discussion of the “Wisconsin Dimension” of this period in history at the Madison Central Library and a free showing of The Lavender Scare documentary at PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

OPERA NOVICE: WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY

This Friday, Jan. 17, 6-7 p.m. FREE and open to the public at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street

New to opera? Not sure how you feel about modern opera? Come to the Madison Opera Center for a short, fun and informative evening, led by General Director Kathryn Smith.

Learn about some of the new American operas that are shaping the operatic landscape in the 21st century, including Fellow Travelers. Studio Artist Stephen Hobe (below) will sing an aria from Fellow Travelers, and there will be plenty of time for questions. It’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

FELLOW TRAVELERS: THE WISCONSIN DIMENSION

This Sunday, Jan. 19, 3–4:30 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at the Madison Central Library, 201 West Mifflin Street

 Join us for a discussion of how the Lavender Scare and its fallout was felt in Wisconsin, led by R. Richard Wagner (below top), activist and author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History (below middle), and Susan Zaeske (below bottom), a UW-Madison campus leader in the arts and humanities who has taught an experiential-learning course on LGBTQ history.

THE LAVENDER SCARE– Documentary Screening

Friday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at PBS Wisconsin, 821 University Avenue

PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television) presents a screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to tell the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the film was praised as “a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary… vivid, disturbing and rousing” by the Los Angeles Times. The screening will be followed by a discussion.

OPERA UP CLOSE: FELLOW TRAVELERS

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1-3 p.m.; FREE for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers; and $20 for non-subscribers; at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

Join the Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Fellow Travelers. General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss many aspects of the opera, including the historical events that provide the story’s backdrop, the novel on which it is based, and how this 2016 opera swiftly spread across the country.

Principal artists, stage director Peter Rothstein, and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this acclaimed 2016 work.

PRE-OPERA TALKS

Friday, February 7, 2020, 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 9, 2020, 1:30 p.m. FREE to ticket holders at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center

Join General Director Kathryn Smith one hour prior to performances for an entertaining and informative talk about Fellow Travelers.

 


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Classical music: A public memorial for critic John W. Barker is this Sunday afternoon. You can also help honor him with a named chair at the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center

December 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that John W. Barker (below, in a photo by Mark Golbach) — a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history and  a longtime, well respected music critic, lecturer and radio host for WORT —  died at 86 on Oct. 24.

His wife Margaret writes:

Dear Friends,

There will be a gathering to remember John at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street – downtown and two blocks off the Capitol Square — this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15, at 3:30 p.m. Please join us for memories and music. And please pass the word.

Barker wrote frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, The Capital Times and the American Record Review. He had a long, full life with distinguished careers in both history and music.

For a complete obituary, go to: https://madison.com/news/local/obituaries/barker-john-walton/article_04261147-4317-5cf2-9b6a-4098f3ffca06.html

Barker has already been honored by a special performance for him and then by the current season being dedicated to him by Middleton Community Orchestra; and by the Madison Early Music Festival, in which he was very active for many years, naming its annual concert lecture series after him.

Another way to honor Barker is to contribute to a project that is headed by local businesspeople Orange and Dean Schroeder, who founded the annual Handel Aria Competition, of which Barker was a founding board member who also served as a judge. The Schroeders write:

“Members of the Madison musical community have decided to honor John W. Barker by dedicating a seat in his memory in the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison. The cost is $1,500 of which $950 has already been raised. If you would like to join us, please click on this link and specify that you are making the gift in his memory: https://secure.supportuw.org/give/?id=515d53cf-e8ff-4caa-9260-c7885c66b309

John W. Barker sang in choirs and loved choral music, like the last movement, “In Paradise,” of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Thank you, John. Rest in peace.


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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
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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: This afternoon is your last chance to hear the all-Russian program by violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Here are two very positive reviews and a more critical one

October 20, 2019
9 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, is your last chance to hear the highly praised all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), conducted by music director John DeMain.

The  guest soloist is the critically acclaimed, virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) from Chicago.

For more details about the program, the performers, program notes and tickets, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/classical-music-this-weekend-guest-violinist-rachel-barton-pine-solos-in-an-all-russian-program-of-khachaturian-prokofiev-and-shostakovich-by-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

The concert features the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Aram Khachaturian; the “Lieutenant Kijé Suite” film score by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

From the previews, the thematic program – all works were composed in the Soviet Union under the threatening shadow of the terrorist-dictator Josef Stalin (below) — sounded promising.

And it turns out that that the promise was, to varying degrees, fulfilled.

Here are two very positive reviews of the concert.

The first is by Michael Muckian (below), who has taken over reviewing duties at Isthmus for the now retired critic John W. Barker: https://isthmus.com/music/wildrussianride/

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger (below): https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2019/10/19/madison-symphony-triumphs-over-the-soviets/

And here is a somewhat more critical review by UW-Madison music graduate Matt Ambrosio (below) written for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/review-rachel-barton-pine-gives-memorable-performance-with-the-mso/article_61f34b8d-8dd8-514d-8e75-576a47826a04.html

What did you think of the programs, the performers and the performance?

Which critic do you most agree with?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
7 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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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
18 Comments

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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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Music education: The Madison Youth Choirs explore the theme of “Legacy” in three concerts this Saturday and Sunday in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center

May 8, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from the Madison Youth Choirs about their upcoming concerts this weekend:

This spring, Madison Youth Choirs singers are exploring the meaning of “Legacy,” studying works that have endured throughout history, folk traditions that have been passed on, and musical connections that we maintain with those who have come before us. Along the way, we’re discovering how our own choices and examples are leaving a lasting impact on future generations.

In our upcoming concert series in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on this Saturday, May 11, and Sunday, May 12, we’ll present a variety of works. They  include Benjamin Britten’s “The Golden Vanity,” Palestrina’s beloved “Sicut Cervus,” Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Wanting Memories,” the final chorus of Handel’s oratorio Samson, American and Scottish folk songs, and Zoe Mulford’s powerful modern folk piece, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

The concert will also pay tribute to our alumni, with selections featured on the very first Madison Boychoir album, and past Cantabile singers invited to join us on stage for “Sisters, Now Our Meeting is Over.”

At the Saturday concert, MYC will present the 2019 Carrel Pray Music Educator of the Year award to Diana Popowycz (below), co-founder of Suzuki Strings of Madison.

DETAILS ABOUT “LEGACY” MYC’S SPRING CONCERT SERIES

Saturday
7:30 p.m. Purcell, Britten, Holst and Ragazzi (boychoirs)

Sunday
3:30 p.m. Choraliers, Con Gioia, Capriccio, Cantilena and Cantabile (girlchoirs)

7:30 p.m. Cantilena, Cantabile and Ragazzi (high school ensembles)

THREE WAYS TO PURCHASE TICKETS:

  1. In person at the Overture Center Box Office (lowest cost)
  2. Online (https://www.overture.org/events/legacy)
  3. By phone (608-258-4141)

Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for students. Children under 7 are free, but a ticket is still required and can be requested at the Overture Center Box Office. Seating is General Admission.

This concert is supported by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, the Kenneth A. Lattman Foundation and Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, The Evjue Foundation, charitable arm of The Capital Times, and the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation. This project is also made possible by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with additional funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

ABOUT 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, 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.

REPERTOIRE

SATURDAY

For the 7:30 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Britten

“The Golden Vanity,” by Benjamin Britten (to our knowledge, this will be the first time the work has ever been performed in Madison)

Purcell

“Simple Gifts” by Joseph Brackett, arr. Aaron Copland

“Tallis Canon” by Thomas Tallis

“Sound the Trumpet” from Come Ye Sons of Art by Henry Purcell

Britten   

“Ich jauchze, ich lache” by Johann Sebastian Bach

Holst

“Hallelujah, Amen” from Judas Maccabeus by George Frideric Handel

“Sed diabolus” by Hildegard von Bingen

“Bar’bry Allen” Traditional ballad, arr. Joshua Shank

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

Ragazzi

“Let Your Voice Be Heard” by Abraham Adzenyah

“Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

“Agincourt Carol,” Anonymous, ca. 15th century

Ragazzi & Holst

“The President Sang Amazing Grace” by Zoe Mulford, arr. Randal Swiggum

Holst

“Shosholoza,” Traditional song from Zimbabwe

Combined Boychoirs

“Will Ye No Come Back Again?” Traditional Scottish, arr. Randal Swiggum

Legacy Choirs

“Day is Done” by Peter Yarrow, arr. Randal Swiggum

SUNDAY

For the 3:30 p.m. Concert (featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Music Alone Shall Live,” Traditional German canon

“Ut Queant Laxis,” Plainsong chant, text attributed to Paolo Diacono

“This Little Light of Mine” by Harry Dixon Loes, arr. Ken Berg

“A Great Big Sea,” Newfoundland folk song, arr. Lori-Anne Dolloff

Con Gioia

“Seligkeit” by Franz Schubert

“Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin, arr. Roger Emerson

“When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell

“Pokare Kare Ana” by Paraire Tomoana

“Ah, comme c’est chose belle” Anonymous, 14th century

“Hope” by Marjan Helms, poem by Emily Dickinson

Capriccio

“Non Nobis Domine,” attributed to William Byrd

“Ich Folge Dir Gleichfalls” from St. John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach

“Dirait-on” by Morten Lauridsen

Cantilena

“Aure Volanti” by Francesca Caccini

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

Cantabile

“Come All You Fair and Pretty Ladies” Traditional Ozark song, adapted by Mike Ross

“Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Legacy Choir

“Music in My Mother’s House” by Stuart Stotts

For the 7:30 p.m. concert (featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“Aure Volanti” by Francesca Caccini

“Una Sañosa Porfía by Juan del Encina

“Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon

“O Virtus Sapientiae” by Hildegard von Bingen

Ragazzi

“Sicut Cervus” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

“Agincourt Carol,” Anonymous, ca. 15th century

“Let Your Voice Be Heard” by Abraham Adzenyah

“The President Sang Amazing Grace” by Zoe Mulford, arr. Randal Swiggum

Cantabile

“In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles” by Roger Bourland

“Sed Diabolus” by Hildegard von Bingen

“Come All You Fair and Pretty Ladies” Traditional Ozark song, adapted by Mike Ross

“Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Combined Choirs

“Let Their Celestial Concerts All Unite” by George Frideric Handel

 Cantabile and Alumnae

“Sisters, Now Our Meeting is Over,” Traditional Quaker meeting song


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