The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Choral Arts Society Chorale sings about immigration and longing for a home this Friday night. On Saturday night, the Mosaic Chamber Players offer piano trios by Beethoven and Brahms

April 26, 2018
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ALERT: The acclaimed Mosaic Chamber Players close out their current season on this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program offers two of the most famous piano trios ever composed: the “Archduke” Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, by Johannes Brahms. Tickets are at the door, cash or check only, and cost $15, $10 for seniors and $5 for students.

For more information, go to: http://www.mosaicchamberplayers.com

By Jacob Stockinger

The theme of immigration only seems to grow as a timely and politically charged topic not only here in the U.S. but also around the world, especially in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In another indication that the performing arts are returning to socially activist role in the current political climate, immigration is the unifying theme of a concert by The Choral Arts Society Chorale of Madison (below), a local community chorus.

The group performs this Friday night, April 27, at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago Street, on Madison’s near east side, under the direction of the group’s artistic director Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below), who also founded and directs the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).

The program, titled “Would You Harbor Me?,” features music about and by immigrants, and about longing for a home.

The centerpiece is the 1998 cantata “The Golden Door” for chorus and chamber ensemble by Ronald Perera (below). You can hear the “Names” section of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The work is based on texts from the archives of Ellis Island (below).

Also on the program – drawn from different time periods and different cultures — are pieces by various composers. They include Leonard Bernstein; Palestrina; Heinrich Isaac; Sydney Guillaume; Sweet Honey in the Rock‘s Ysaye Barnwell on themes of leaving home and welcoming the stranger; and Irving Berlin‘s setting of the poem from the Statue of Liberty (below).

Tickets are $15; $10 for students $10, and re available at the door, or online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/choral-arts-society-chorale-spring-concert-tickets-44453227801.

The complete program is: Ysaye Barnwell: “Would You Harbor Me”; Palestrina: “Super flumina Babylonis” (By the Waters of Babylon); Traditional Irish, arr. Peter Knight: “O Danny Boy”; Carlos Guastavino: “Pueblito, mi pueblo” (Little village, my village); Heinrich Isaac: “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” (Innsbruck, I must leave you); Sydney Guillaume: Onè – Respè; Leonard Bernstein: “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”; Intermission; Ronald Perera: “The Golden Door”; Irving Berlin: “Give me your tired, your poor”

For more information about the group, go to: http://choralartsmadison.org

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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison includes FREE concerts of music for strings, winds, voice and brass

February 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week will be busy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

There is something just about every day and all of it is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For all events, including some interesting doctoral recitals and lectures, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

Here is a schedule of the major events:

TUESDAY

NOTE: The concert by guest artists flutist Cristina Ballatori and guitarist Jonathan Dotson has been CANCELED.

At 7:30 in Mills Hall, a concert and discussion of Eastern European string music will be given by Maria Pomianowska (below top) and Seth Parker Woods (below bottom in a photo by Michael Yu).

For more information, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/maria-pomianowska-seth-parker-woods-eastern-european-string-music/

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW trombonist Mark Hetzler (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below bottom) will perform music from their latest CD on Summit Records “Themes and Meditations.” Featured composers include Sandro Fuga, Jan Bach, Anthony Plog, Anthony Barfield and Frank Bridge.

For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-duo-recital-mark-hetzler-trombone-martha-fischer-piano/

THURSDAY

At 7 p.m. at Oakwood Village West, 6209 Mineral Point Road, in Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, the UW Wingra Wind Quintet will perform a free concert. Sorry, no words on composers or pieces on the program. Members are (below, from left, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) bassoonist Marc Vallon, flutist Timothy Hagen, clarinetist Alicia Lee, oboist Aaron Hill, and hornist Joanna Schulz.

FRIDAY

At 5 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the voice students of UW professor Mimmi Fulmer (below) will perform a “Rush Hour Recital” of classical and popular songs. Sorry, no word on composers or pieces on the program.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW cellist Parry Karp (below left), who plays with the Pro Arte Quartet, will perform a recital with longtime partner pianist Eli Kalman (below right), who did his graduate studies at UW-Madison and now teaches at UW-Oshkosh.

The program features the “Romance for Violin and Piano” by Polish composer Karl Szymanowski as transcribed by Karp; the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major by Johannes Brahms; and the Sonata for Cello and Piano by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan. (You can hear the original setting of the Szymanowski Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-parry-karp-cello-and-eli-kalman-piano/

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. in Morphy Hall the winners of the Irving Shain Woodwind and Piano Duo Competition will perform. The winners have not yet been named and there is no program yet posted. Stay tuned and go to here for an update: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/irving-shain-woodwind-piano-duo-competition-winners-recital/


Classical music: This weekend, soloist Alban Gerhardt will give the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the Cello Concerto by William Walton. Also on the program are an overture by Rossini and the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms

February 12, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, cellist Alban Gerhardt (below) returns to the Madison Symphony Orchestra to play the lyrically bittersweet Cello Concerto by William Walton for the first time in the history of the MSO.

Filling out the program are the lush and sweeping Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the rousing Overture to the opera Semiramide” by Gioachino Rossini.

The concerts are in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $18-$90, and discounts are available. See below for details.

MSO music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), who will conduct the performance, previewed the “Richly Romantic” program:

“Opening the concert is a favorite overture of mine by the prolific Rossini, from the opera Semiramide.

“Next, we welcome back Alban Gerhardt. This charismatic cellist has a huge repertoire and impeccable technique, as well as consummate musicianship. (NOTE: Gerhardt will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music on Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.)

“In my search to program important works that have not been previously performed by the MSO, I realized that we have never performed the cello concerto by William Walton. It is a very beautiful and lyrical work, and I look forward to collaborating again with Alban on this project.

“I never like to let too much time pass without programming the Brahms symphonies. The first symphony was a huge success at its premiere, and has been proclaimed a masterpiece. It overtly pays tribute to the great master who gave us nine great symphonies. Indeed, many people have referred to the Brahms first as Beethoven’s 10th.”

Here is more background about the three works:

The Overture to Semiramide marks a departure from other operatic overtures of the early 1800s, in that the themes are drawn directly from the opera’s score.

Written by Rossini (below), one of the greatest opera composers in history, the piece also represents some of his best orchestral writing, starting from the rhythmic opening, to the entrance of the horn choir taken directly from the score of the opera, to the joyously frenetic ending.

Written in 1956 in Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Cello Concerto by William Walton (below) reflects the composer’s love of Italy and has been described as subdued, brittle, bittersweet, and introspective.

The composition is suffused with Italianate warmth and a lyrical, singing quality reflecting both bel canto opera as well as Italian popular song. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the first movement played by Gregor Piatigorsky, for whom the concerto was written.)

Praised for the “warm songfulness of his playing” (The Telegraph) at the 2016 BBC Proms, Alban Gerhardt (below) has, for 25 years, made a unique impact on audiences worldwide with his intense musicality, compelling stage presence, and insatiable artistic curiosity.

His gift for shedding fresh light on familiar scores, along with his appetite for investigating new repertoire from centuries past and present, truly sets him apart from his peers.

Though he began writing sketches of the piece as early as 1854, the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms (below) was not completed for 21 years, premiering in Germany in 1876. The final movement contains melodies reminiscent of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which has led some critics to dub the work “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” much to Brahms’ dismay.

One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below), artistic director of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra and interim artistic director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please view the Program Notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/6.Feb18.html

The Symphony recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk that is free for all ticket-holders.

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel & Governor’s Club, University Research Park, and National Guardian Life Insurance Company.

Additional funding was provided by Boardman & Clark LLP, Scott and Janet Cabot, Martha and Charles Casey, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra plus soloists will perform Brahms and Mozart this Saturday and Sunday nights. On Friday night, the Choral Arts Society Chorale performs a holiday program.

December 7, 2017
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ALERT: The Choral Arts Society Chorale of Madison, under director Mikko Rankin Utevsky, will perform “Frostiana: Songs for a Winter’s Night” this Friday night at 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St. Admission is $15, students $10. The program is: Brahms, “In stiller Nacht”; Barber, “Sure on this shining night”; Lasso, “Matona mia cara”; Victoria, “O Magnum Mysterium”; Gendel, “It was my father’s custom”; Myers, “The Winter’s Night”; Leontovych, “Shchedryk“; and Thompson, “Frosting.”

For more information, go to www.ChoralArtsMadison.org

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the UW-Madison campus and community Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform the rarely heard “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) by Brahms and the “Great” Mass in C Minor, K. 427, by Mozart.

The performances are in Mills Hall on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday night at 7 p.m.

Writes conductor Beverly Taylor (below):

The “Schicksalslied,” Op. 54, by Brahms (below) is a heartfelt, 16-minute work that sets Friedrich Hoelderlin’s poem about the yearning and loss of beauty, and suggestion of hope for the future.

“The work starts with gorgeous, muted harmonies; goes into a passionate whirlwind in the middle; and then ends with an orchestral recollection of the opening themes.

“If the work were longer, it might be performed more often. It is a real jewel of Brahms’s repertoire.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Adds Taylor: “The C minor Mass, like the Requiem, was unfinished by Mozart (below) —we are not sure why. It contains vibrant writing for the chorus, including several movements for double chorus, and some of the finest solo music he ever wrote.”

The soloists will be sopranos Sarah Richardson (below top) and Chelsie Propst (below second), tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below third), and baritone Matthew Chastain (below bottom).

Tickets are $15 for the public, $8 for students.

For more information about obtaining tickets and for more about the works and performers, go to; http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/choral-union-symphony-orchestra-2/


Classical music: This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Spanish music and a new concerto by Chris Brubeck

November 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO), with music director John DeMain conducting, will present the third concert of its 92nd season.

“Troubadour: Two Faces of the Classical Guitar” features Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin (below) playing two works: one written for Isbin by American composer Chris Brubeck; and the other by the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. (Isbin will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall on the UW-Madison campus in the Humanities Building on North Park Street.)

In addition the MSO will perform two 20th-century ballet suites — The Three-Cornered Hat by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla and Billy the Kid by American composer Aaron Copland.

The concerts (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) are in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street on Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18-$90. Details are below.

Invoking a sense of the American heartland, Billy the Kid was written by Copland (below) as a ballet following the life of the infamous outlaw. This piece is most well-known for the memorable “cowboy” tunes and American folk songs that paint a vivid picture of the Wild West.

The virtuosity and versatility of multiple Grammy Award-winner Sharon Isbin is on display in this program of contrasts: the jazz idioms of the American composer Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” written for Sharon Isbin, alongside the lush romanticism of the Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” (You can hear Sharon Isbin play the beautiful slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The piece by Brubeck (below) contains strong hints of the jazz influence of his father, noted pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. Inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, Rodrigo’s composition attempts to transport the listener to another place and time through the evocation of the sounds of nature.

Isbin’s performances of Chris Brubeck’s “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” have received wide acclaim: “The concerto takes off with Isbin delivering rapid-fire virtuosity with infectious themes. The slow middle is a tender jazz-based tribute to Dave Brubeck, and Isbin played with heartfelt warmth and tenderness. The finale was an infectious rhythmically driven journey through myriad styles. It was as intriguing as it was moving … Isbin is much more than a virtuoso; she is an artist of depth.”

The Three-Cornered Hat by De Falla (below) is based on a story written by Pedro de Alarcón about a Corregidor (magistrate) who tries, without success, to seduce the pretty wife of the local miller.

One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), professor at UW-Whitewater, MSO trombonist and writer of MSO’s program notes, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

For more background on the music, please read Allsen’s Program Notes at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1718/3.Nov17.html.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the pre-concert talk (free for all ticket-holders).

Single Tickets are $18-$90 each and are on sale now at https://www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $18 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique, and versatility, Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time.” Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, her debut concert with the MSO comes after over 170 solo performances with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, London Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Orchestre National de France, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary presented by American Public Television. Seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations throughout the US, it is also available on DVD/Blu-ray and won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” paints the portrait of a trailblazing performer and teacher who over the course of her career has broken through numerous barriers to rise to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The following is a dedicated website where you can view the trailer, read rave reviews, and see detailed broadcast dates: www.SharonIsbinTroubadour.com

Major funding for the September concerts is provided by: NBC-15, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by Scott and Janet Cabot, John DeLamater and Janet Hyde, Steven Weber, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: On Saturday night, the Festival Choir of Madison will sing a program of modern Norwegian and Baltic music about the Northern Lights. Plus on Friday there is a FREE noontime concert of music by Mozart and Ernesto Nazareth and a FREE PUBLIC master class by pianist Richard Goode

November 2, 2017
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ALERT I: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ernesto Nazareth. (Sorry, no specific works for either composer were named.) The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

The performers in Mozart are: Joanne Schulz and Sarah Gillespie, horns; Elspeth Stalter-Close, violin; Melanie De Jesus and Shannon Farley, violas; Emma Downing, cello. The performers in Nazareth are: Chris Allen, guitar; Shannon Farley, viola; and Iva Ugrcic, flute.

ALERT II: On Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, pianist Richard Goode will give a FREE and PUBLIC master class on Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy. For more about Goode’s recital on Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/classical-music-master-pianist-richard-goode-performs-music-by-bach-beethoven-chopin-and-alban-berg-in-a-must-hear-recital-this-saturday-night-at-the-wisconsin-union-theater/

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, at 7:30 p.m., at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Festival Choir of Madison (below top) will perform under director and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov (below bottom).

The program features contemporary Norwegian and Baltic choral music around the theme of the “Northern Lights” or Aurora Borealis (below, as seen in northern Norway).

For more information, go to: https://www.festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/2017/11/northernlights

Admission is $20 for the public; $15 for seniors; and $10 for students. For ticket information, go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3054565?ref=349591

The voices will be supported by leading Madison-based musicians in a journey through the mystical soundscapes of the North with music by Ola Gjeilo (below top), Peteris Vasks, Trond Kverno, Eriks Esenvalds (below middle), and retired UW-Madison horn professor and composer Douglas Hill (below bottom).

The specific program includes: “Northern Lights” by Ola Gjeilo; “Dark Night of the Soul” by Ola Gjeilo; “Mate Saule” by Peteris Vasks; “Ave Maris Stella” by Trond Kverno; “Northern Lights” by Eriks Esenvalds (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); and “Homage to Thoreau” by Douglas Hill.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


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

September 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Classical music: You can hear Schubert’s last songs at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival TONIGHT at 7:30

August 30, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has been informed that seats still remain for tonight’s all-Schubert concert at the popular Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Half of the concert will be piano music, including the six Moments Musicaux and a work for piano, four-hands, a genre that Schubert often composed in and performed with friends. Ya-Fei Chuang (below) is the featured piano soloist.

Also on the program is “Swan Song” – sung by tenor Charles Blandy (below top) with pianist Alison D’Amato (below bottom) of the Eastman School of Music and the University of Buffalo.

Here are program notes by the festival’s co-artistic director and prize-winning composer John Harbison about the work:

Schwanengesang is not a planned cycle. Instead it is a collection of Schubert’s last songs, as serious and searching as the two great cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.

Thematically and musically, the songs have much in common and, taken together, they are unequalled in plumbing the emotional depths of the soul, heart-wrenching and heartwarming.

We can’t be certain whether Schubert (below) ever intended them to be performed as a unity.

When they were published early in 1829, after his death at 31, it was the first publisher, Tobias Haslinger, who named the collection Schwanengesang (Swan Song), presumably to emphasize that these were the last fruits of the composer’s genius.

The sequence consists of settings of seven poems by Rellstab, six by Heine and, as an encore,  Seidl’s “Taubenpost,” quite likely the very last song Schubert ever wrote. (You can hear “Taubenpost,” sung by the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information about the festival, the remaining concerts and tickets, visit www.tokencreekfestival.org


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