ALERT: Today is Veterans Day. What piece of classical music should be played to mark the event? The Ear suggests the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Leave your choice in the COMMENT section.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today’s post features a guest review of Madison Opera’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Larry Wells. Wells has been enjoying opera since he was a youngster. He subscribed to the San Francisco Opera for nearly 20 years, where he last saw “Romeo and Juliet,” sung by Alfredo Kraus and Ruth Ann Swenson.
More recently he lived in Tokyo and attended many memorable performances there over nearly 20 years. These included Richard Strauss rarities such as “Die Ägyptische Helena” and “Die Liebe der Danae” as well as the world’s strangest Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner and a space-age production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” featuring Alessandra Marc singing “In questa reggia” while encased in an inverted cone.
By Larry Wells
Last Sunday’s matinee performance of Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by Madison Opera at the Overture Center was a feast for the eyes. The costumes, sets, lighting and staging were consistently arresting. (Performance photos are by James Gill.)
But we go to the opera for music and drama.
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is well known. Gounod’s opera substitutes the tragedy with melodrama, and therein lies one of the work’s flaws. Despite sword fights, posturings and threats as well as one of opera’s lengthiest death scenes, one leaves the theater thinking that a vast amount of theatrical resources have been squandered on something insubstantial.
However, despite its dramatic flaws, the opera’s music has somehow endured. And Sunday’s performance milked the most out of the music that could have been expected.
The star of the show was the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the expert direction of Maestro John DeMain (below). He knows how to pace a performance, how to build an exciting climax and how to highlight a solo instrument.
He is an incredibly intelligent conductor, and we are fortunate to have him in Madison. I want to make special mention of the beautiful harp playing, which, according to the program, was accomplished by Jenny DeRoche.
The second star on the stage was the Madison Opera Chorus (below). The chorus plays a significant part in many of the opera’s scenes, and the singing was stirring when it needed to be and tender when it was called for.
As for the soloists, highest praise must go to UW-Madison alumna soprano Emily Birsan (below right) for her portrayal of Juliet. Her solo arias, particularly her big number in the first act as well as her subsequent lament, were stunning.
Her Romeo, tenor John Irvin (below left), sounded a little forced during his forte moments, but he sang magnificently in his quiet farewell to Juliet after their balcony scene. (You can hear the famous balcony scene, sung by Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Their voices blended beautifully in the opera’s multiple duets. And the wedding quartet, where they were joined by Allisanne Apple’s nurse (below, rear right) and Liam Moran’s Friar Lawrence (below, middle center), was a highlight of the performance.
The opera abounds with minor characters, all of which were ably portrayed. Special mention should be made of Stephanie Lauricella (below, far right) for her fantastic moments as Romeo’s page; Madison’s Allisanne Apple for her amusing portrayal of Juliet’s nurse Gertrude; Sidney Outlaw (below, second from left) as a robust Mercutio; and Philip Skinner as a powerful Lord Capulet.
I have wondered why this opera is still performed. Its music is lovely but unmemorable, and its dramatic impact is tenuous.
I left the performance thinking that it had been a good afternoon at the theater – certainly more interesting than the Packers’ game – but wishing that one of a couple dozen more meaty operas had been performed in its place.
Since we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, how much more interesting would have been Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?
ALERT: This Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, 300 East Gorham Street in James Madison Park, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a concert of music by Claudio Monteverdi, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Francois Couperin and others. Tickets at the door are $20 for the public, $10 for students. A free reception with the musicians follows at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor. For more information about the performers and the program, visit www.wisconsinbaroque.org
By Jacob Stockinger
Editor’s note: The Ear’s good friend and knowledgeable classical music fan Larry Wells offered the following review of last weekend’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” by the Madison Opera. Production photos are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.
By Larry Wells
I had been looking forward to Madison Opera’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach (below) ever since it was announced.
The opera is a particular favorite of mine, and I’ve seen a number of productions in larger houses, most recently in Tokyo and most memorably a production at the San Francisco Opera 30 years ago with Placido Domingo and James Morris.
I was interested to see how Madison Opera would approach this somewhat theatrically difficult work, and Sunday’s performance was a delight from beginning to end.
First, the singing.
The cast was consistently strong, and each singer could be mentioned in a positive vein. So, I single out three who particularly stood out.
The star of the show, for me, was coloratura soprano Jeni Hauser (below, center, in white) as Olympia, the doll. Her vocal pyrotechnics were sensational. She would be a wonderful Zerbinetta, and I would enjoy seeing her tackle Baby Doe. She is a very funny physical comic actress, and she was simply wonderful.
Morgan Smith (below) as Hoffmann’s four nemeses was excellent possessing a strong, deep bass-baritone. As a side note, he is the second singer I’ve seen and heard recently in Wisconsin who will be featured in Tucson Opera’s upcoming premiere of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” the other being Keith Phares who was in Florentine Opera’s recent production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers.” It will be conducted by Keitaro Harada, who is a talent to watch.
The third standout was mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala (below) as Hoffmann’s Muse and attendant. She was outstanding vocally and fun to watch.
Hoffmann was sung by tenor Harold Meers (below right, in suit). For an exhausting role, Meers toughed it out and, when singing full voice, was resonant and lyrical.
The production was set in a well-stocked bar, and Hoffmann’s series of bad choices in love appeared fueled by alcohol.
The set, from the Virginia Opera, and costumes were dazzling, particularly in the Giulietta act, which in a departure from the productions I’ve seen, was the third act. I felt that the change of the order of the acts made a lot of sense dramatically.
And I loved the use by stage director Kristine McIntyre of the Roaring Twenties theme – flappers and Charlestons, along with gondolas, fog and a bit of German Expressionism. Total fun.
My favorite moment of the opera is the ensemble in the Giulietta scene “Hélas Mon Coeur,” and its performance Sunday nearly brought me to tears. In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear that music performed by Placido Domingo and the remarkable Agnes Baltsa.
So, bravo Madison Opera, for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at the opera. I heard several people say that it was a long one — three hours — but for me the time flew.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since reviews are subjective, for purposes of comparison here is a link to John W. Barker’s rave review that just appeared in Isthmus:
By Jacob Stockinger
Arts patron Larry Wells wrote to The Ear to get something off his chest that might also pertain to other audience members, including you. Here is what he said:
I moved to Madison a little over a year ago after spending the last 40 years in San Francisco, Moscow and Tokyo, all of which had vibrant offerings for symphonic music, ballet and opera as well as great performance venues.
I have been very pleased to find that Madison offers the same. I can think of four different symphony orchestras I’ve heard in Madison this past year as well as opera and ballet performances. (Below is Overture Hall.)
The difference has been the audiences.
I do not believe I have been to a single performance this year where there hasn’t been someone who has decided to unwrap a cough drop. This usually happens during a quiet passage, and often the culprit realizes that he or she is making a noise, so decides that the solution is to unwrap the cellophane more slowly, thus lengthening my agony.
In San Francisco, someone at the symphony came up with the solution to supply cough drops with silent wrappers in bowls at each door to the hall. Problem solved.
Another source of noise in the audience is whispering. Usually when someone starts speaking to his neighbor, annoyed audience members glare at the culprit, and then he starts to whisper. I assume that the underlying belief is that when you whisper, you cannot be heard. That is, of course, incorrect. You can still be heard, just not as clearly. In Japan, no one would dream of speaking during a performance.
I was at the ballet the other night at the Capitol Theater for which I had bought the priciest ticket in the center orchestra. There were five middle school girls seated directly behind me. Each had a plastic cup filled with a drink and crushed ice. Throughout the first act I kept hearing the ice being sloshed around in the plastic cups as every last drop of icy goodness was being extracted.
I asked an usher during the intermission about this, and she said that it was each ensemble’s choice as to whether drinks were allowed in the theater or not. For example, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does not allow drinks but the Madison Ballet does.
This is the first time I have heard of drinks being allowed into a ballet — they certainly weren’t allowed at the Bolshoi where they had very stern ushers, I can tell you — and I wonder if popcorn and hot dogs will be next. Perhaps it has to do with the prevailing current American fear of becoming dehydrated, although I think most people can endure 40 minutes without dessicating.
The Ear believes that I am a curmudgeon, and I halfway believe it myself. But when my enjoyment of a concert is jeopardized by inconsiderate audience behavior, then I believe I have a right to be miffed.
Curiously, I have not been to a single performance of anything this past year that hasn’t ended with a standing ovation. Now, I understand that the audience is just trying to be nice. But shouldn’t standing ovations be reserved for truly sensational once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Otherwise, the whole idea is cheapened, and Madisonians end up coming across as provincial.
Last weekend, I was at the Madison Symphony Orchestra and had a spare ticket that I was trying to give away when I was yelled at by a box office clerk who said: “That’s illegal here!” Thinking that she thought I was trying to scalp a ticket to the symphony — probably not a major problem in Madison — I told her that I was merely trying to give the ticket away. She repeated, “That’s illegal here.”
I was very embarrassed. I seriously doubt that there is a city ordinance against giving away concert tickets, and if I want to give away a $75 ticket as a good deed, I think that should be my prerogative.
With declining attendance at arts events, I feel that the Overture Center should have its patrons’ good will in mind instead of demonizing them for doing a good deed.
ALERT: Sad news has reached The Ear. Samuel M. Jones, a bass-baritone who was an exceptional performer and teacher at the UW-Madison School of Music for 37 years and who also served as the cantor at Temple Beth El and the Choral Director at Grace Episcopal Church, has died at 87. Here is a link to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal:
By Jacob Stockinger
On Friday night, The Ear couldn’t be in two places at once.
Being in the mood for some solo piano playing – because The Ear himself is an avid amateur pianist – he attended the solo recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, William Bolcom and Johannes Brahms performed by UW-Madison School of Music professor Christopher Taylor. But more about that will come in another post this week.
However, Larry Wells — a college classmate and good friend who is a longtime and very knowledgeable classical music follower and who has worked, lived and attended concerts in Rochester, San Francisco, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul — went to the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.
He filed this review:
By Larry Wells
The program opened with a short introduction by Maestro Andrew Sewell, the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to the “English Suite” for string orchestra by the contemporary British composer Paul Lewis. (Sewell himself is a New Zealand native who also trained in England.)
Although the work was termed by Sewell as an obligatory form for British composers in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and the like, I found the rhapsodic opening and closing of the second section, “Meditation,” reminiscent of VW’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” But the remainder of the piece seemed trite and forgettable.
Following was the Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. In this case, a concert grand piano was used featuring soloist Ilya Yakushev, a Russian native who now lives in the U.S., who was making his second appearance with the WCO.
This familiar piece was played bouncily in the first movement, sweetly in the second, and really fast in the third. I enjoyed Yakushev’s playing, although from my seat the piano seemed slightly muffled and occasionally unheard over the orchestra.
The second half of the evening opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg, which Maestro Sewell claimed to be in the manner of Richard Strauss. If so, Strauss was much more expressive and engaging.
The evening ended with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn, again featuring Yakushev. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and found it immediately engaging and enjoyable throughout. (You can hear Ilya Yakushev perform the Mendelssohn piano concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Altogether, it was a good evening of music.
But it was unfortunately marred early in the aforementioned “Meditation” movement when a woman two seats down from me decided to answer a text. The bright light from her cell phone was distracting, so I pointedly stared at her until her seat mate nudged her, and she put away the phone. The seat mate clearly felt that I was in the wrong and glared at me.
I noticed that there is no caution in the program about turning off cell phones, so I believe it would be a good idea for a brief announcement to be made at the beginning of the concert and at the end of the intermission for people to turn off their phones. That simple courtesy has still not become a part of all concertgoers’ routines.
And what is with the Madison tradition of giving everything a standing ovation? (Below is a standing ovation at a concert on the Playhouse by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)
There have been perhaps a dozen times in my long concert-going life when I have been so moved by the moment that I’ve leapt to my feet. I think of a standing ovation as recognition of something extraordinary — not as a routine gesture that cheapens to the point of meaninglessness.
For purposes of comparison, here is a link to the review of the same concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ilya Yakushev that veteran local music critic and retired UW-Madison medieval history professor John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:
By Jacob Stockinger
Christopher Hogwood (below, in a photo by the Associated Press), who, along with Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, John Eliot Gardiner and Frans Bruggen, became synonymous for many us with the movement to promote early music with authentic instruments and historically informed performance practices, has died.
He died Wednesday and was 73, and he had been ill for a brief time. He died at his home in Cambridge, England.
There are many things that The Ear loved about Hogwood, but nothing more than his recordings of string concertos by Antonio Vivaldi for their verve and of symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for their sweetness and transparency, energy and clarity. (You can hear Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music in 2009 in Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan. They are playing the spectacular and virtuosically contrapuntal last movement of Mozart’s last symphony — Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”– at the bottom in a YouTube video. Just listen to the cheers!)
Hogwood’s version of the popular oratorio “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel is still my preferred one. Hogwood always seemed to serve the music first and foremost, and not fall into the kind of goofy or quirky readings that, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt often did. Everything he did seemed balanced and just plain right, but nonetheless ear-opening in its originality. He made you say: THAT’S the way it should sound.
But curiously, Hogwood (below, in a photo by Marcus Borggreve) seems to have understood other people and performers who prefer early music played in more modern approaches or idiosyncratic or individualistic manners. The Ear likes that kind of non-purist and tolerant approach to early music, to all music really. He is what Hogwood said in one interview:
‘THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH PLAYING THINGS HISTORICALLY COMPLETELY INCORRECTLY: MUSIC IS NOT A MORAL BUSINESS, SO YOU CAN PLAY ABSOLUTELY IN A STYLE THAT SUITS YOU AND PLEASES YOUR PUBLIC. IT MAY BE COMPLETELY UNRECOGNISABLE TO THE COMPOSER BUT SO WHAT, HE’S DEAD.’
Here is a fine story from NPR (National Public Radio):
Here is a comprehensive obituary from The New York Times:
Here is a story from The Washington Post:
And here is a small story that appeared in Hogwood’s native Great Britain, even though Hogwood also directed American groups in Boston, St. Paul and elsewhere:
Here is a link to a 70-minute podcast that the magazine Gramophone did to mark Hogwood’s 70th birthday:
By Jacob Stockinger
As you probably already know, The Ear is running a bit behind.
That’s how busy even the summer season has become, when it comes to classical music in the Madison area. And reviews take a second seat to previews and advance Q&A’s that benefit the performers and audiences.
So over the next few days, I want to provide some critiques and reviews, and even more shout-outs, to various events that took place over the past couple of weeks. I hope you will forgive my tardiness.
You should also know that I am not going in chronological order because some things seem more important or more timely, and therefore more overdue, than others.
So, first things first.
Here is the official website of the competition with the results plus background and biographies of all the finalists and other information:
True, the second annual Handel competition is not strictly speaking a part of MEMF. But it is affiliated with MEMF. And since I have already covered the extraordinary MEMF opening concert “The Leonardo da Vinci Codex” by the Toronto Consort, I wanted to bring you up to date with the results of the aria competition, which has begun to attract national and even international attention.
Here are the big point to note: What a difference a year makes!
This year there was no unsatisfactory split or disagreement between the four judges and the public, as there was last year. BRAVO!!!!
This year, both the judges and the public — which had some pretty discerning listeners in it — agreed on the winner: She was Chelsea Morris (below), who might be familiar from other appearances in Madison with the Madison Bach Musicians and Trevor Stephenson, who whom she has released a CD of songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert.
Morris met all the criteria that Professor John W. Barker, an insightful critic and devoted Handelian, had outlined in his pre-concert lecture. He emphasized that it was not only about beautiful singing but also capturing the sense of drama in a role, of great diction, of ornamentation, of mastering the Handelian style.
Chelsea Morris did all of them, and the second time proved the charm. (You can hear her entry in last year’s aria competition in a YouTube video at the bottom.) And she is moving from Chicago to Madison as her base, where she will be a Studio Artist with the Madison Opera this coming season So The Ear hopes to score a Q&A with her soon. She won $1,000 and free tuition (worth just under $500) to next summer’s Madison Early Music Festival.
Morris sang “Svelato il cor ti vedo” and “L’amor que per te sento” from “Alessandro” and “O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from “Semele.”
Second Prize went to Daniel Moody (below), a countertenor who sang “Pomoe vane do morte! And “Dove aei, amato ben” from the opera “Rodelinda”:
Third Prize ($500) went to soprano Yukie Sato, a Tokyo native who is now based in Basel, Switzerland where she won a similar competition. With much drama, she sang “A Ruggiero crudel” and “Ombre palle” from “Alcina” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from the oratorio “Messiah.”
You read me right: Tokyo and Switzerland. This past year, some money had been raised to help pay travel expenses, and that paid off in the quality of singing, which was higher overall.
The applicants this time numbered 60, and they came from around the nation and world. That was whittled down to 30, and then 15 and then, in the end, to seven finalists (below) because the judges couldn’t agree on just six.
Each contestant had to sing one aria in Italian and another in English. The Ear likes that. It helped us in judging diction, and helped you to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. But The Ear wishes that in future competitions they would ban arias from “Messiah” since you hear that music enough already.
One downside: Held in Music Hall, the Handel aria smack-down drew an audience about half as big as last year, maybe 250 instead of the 500 in Mills Hall. No doubt that fact that admission this year was $10, while last year it was free, figured in that lower attendance. I would sure like to see it return to free admission, if possible. It is a great way to introduce people to the world of Handel, and draw a general audience –- not just specialists.
But another plus this year was that the singers were accompanied by a small five-person pickup orchestra or consort (below) made up mostly of faculty members and professional instrumentalists from the Madison Early Music Festival. The sound sure added authenticity and helped both the singers and the listeners get into the mood of Handel operas, which have been rediscovered big time. Plus, it was just more fun to listen to with great variety of sound, timbre and tone.
This year’s Handel Aria Competition was nothing short of a triumph. The competition is well on its way to becoming an impressive and fun Madison summertime institution. All thanks go, then, to founders and sponsors Dean and Orange Schroeder (below, holding a bust of George Frideric Handel), the business owners of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, who are such reliable and generous supporters of Madison’s classical music scene.
THE ALL-FESTIVAL CONCLUDING CONCERT
A week ago tonight, the Madison Early music held its All-Festival Concert in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue. (MEMF had to use Music Hall and Luther Memorial as alternative venues this summer because Mills Hall at the UW-Madison School of Music was undergoing repairs.)
And speaking of triumphs, the thematic program was based on the sonnet cycle of “Triumph” by Petrarch (below), who examined the importance of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. It is a work that both anticipates and sums up the emerging humanism of the Italian Renaissance.
There are not a lot of specific remarks I can make except that:
The program was well constructed by Grant Herreid (below), who also conducted it.
The orchestra played beautifully and produced big full sound enhanced by the church’s acoustics. Yet a balance was maintained, and vocal and instrumental parts blended.
The various soloists -– and there were many –- were impressive.
Lasting just over an hour, it was a perfect wrap up to a great festival.
Co-founders and co-artistic directors UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe, who both sang in the chorus parts, also announced that next year’s theme will be Early Music in Central and Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bohemia.
By Jacob Stockinger
If you thought that the Madison Symphony Orchestra only programmed orchestral music, you would be very wrong.
The MSO also programs chamber music, such as string quartets, and even organ recitals on the Overture Concert Organ.
Take this Friday night, for instance.
Here is how a press release from the MSO puts it:
“How many concerts does it take to play the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach (below)?
Internationally renowned organist Janette Fishell (below) found out that 21 was the magic number when she performed the complete cycle of Bach’s organ music.
Now she will bring some of this magic to Madison.
The third installment of the 2013-14 Madison Symphony Orchestra Overture Concert Organ series will feature Fishell, an internationally renowned organist, as she makes her Overture Hall debut in a recital this Friday night, March 21, 2014, at 7:30 p.m. at the Overture Center.
Single tickets are $20, and a special $10 student rush will be offered on the day of the performance.
The program, entitled “Bach and Beyond,” will include organ music composed as far back as the early 1700s, and as recently as 1976, displaying the wonderfully diverse repertoire at the hands of the modern organist. (Below is photo of the beautiful, custom-built Klais concert organ in Overture Hall.)
Three pieces by J.S. Bach are included on the program: the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 535; selections from the Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001; and the Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat Major, BWV 552 (you can hear it at the bottom in a YouTube video). The works will exhibit the Baroque style in which the organ, on which Bach was a master, flourished.
Fishell will then move on to three works composed in the late 1800s or later: Ethyl Smyth’s “O Trauerigkeit, O Herzeleid”; Lionel Rogg’s Partita sopra “Nun Freut Euch”; and Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 3 in F-sharp minor, Op. 28. The works will display the intriguing evolution of organ music in recent centuries.
Janettte Fishell has been described as “…a tour de force” (The Diapason) and “…fabulous…flawless!” (comments from a National Convention of the American Guild of Organists). She is a seasoned recitalist, having performed in many of the world’s greatest concert venues in Tokyo, Cambridge, Berlin, Budapest and Prague.
She has been featured at five national conventions and five regional conventions of the American Guild of Organists, and is professor of music and chair of the organ department at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.
The concert is sponsored by John and Christine Gauder, with additional funds from Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation and the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund.
By Jacob Stockinger
This is one of those cases of: Better late than never.
The Ear has a correction to make in the form of an update.
Quite a while ago, I reported that two members of the famed Tokyo String Quartet (below) would retire at the end of the 2013 season.
At the time, the quartet, which was founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School and has long since been identified as artists-in-residence at Yale University, said it was auditioning for replacement members.
But in the meantime, the acclaimed and award-winning quartet — which plays on a matched set of Stradivarius instruments — has decided to retire and to disband entirely after the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Here is a link to my original story:
And here are links to the update:
By Jacob Stockinger
This past weekend, in Madison we partied as we celebrated the last of this season’s four concerts, lecture series and world premieres of commissioned works marking the centennial of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet.
There were lectures, a dinner, a question-and-answer session with American composer John Harbison and UK musicologist/music journalist Tully Potter; and a dessert reception after a FREE concert (below) that included Haydn’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2; Franck’s Quartet in D major; and the world premiere of John Harbison’s Quartet No. 5, commissioned by the Pro Arte.
The Pro Arte, you may recall, started in 1912 at the Belgium Conservatory in Brussels, then became the royal court quartet and got marooned in Madison when Hitler invaded their homeland in May of 1940 while they were on tour, playing a Beethoven cycle in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
So 100 years is a world record for a quartet.
Just how very impressive that fact is came home again when I learned that the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet (below) is going to disband at the end of next season – after 40 years of existence — instead of finding two replacements for two retiring original members.
They had already replaced two of the original members and changed record labels from RCA to Harmonia Mundi. The quartet has won major prizes at both labels.
The Tokyo is not alone. String quartets, and there are many of them right now, come and go.
Over decades, the constant practicing and performing, touring and recording, can be a strenuous way to earn a living and live a life. It takes a toll.
A few years back, it was the wonderful Guarneri Quartet, which recorded with pianist Artur Rubinstein in the 1960s and 1970s, that disbanded. (The Guarneri played at the Wisconsin Union Theater during its farewell tour.)
The Emerson Quartet is still together and performing after some 35 years but is replacing is retiring cellist David Finckel who performed Mendelssohn’s two piano trios at the Wisconsin Union Theater this season with his pianist wide Wu Han and Emerson violinist Phillip Setzer.
I also heard the Tokyo Quartet at least once and probably more at the Wisconsin Union Theater. I especially recall a performance they gave of a Shostakovich quartet.
But they were also known for two complete Beethoven cycles plus Schubert and Mozart cycles. Of the two Beethoven cycles I especially love the six early Op. 18 quartets they recorded for a second cycle for Harmonia Mundi (below), although many listeners will prefer the middle and late quartets, pro their Dvorak, or Tchaikovsky, or their Debussy (at bottom). But I’m just a sucker for early Beethoven!
Anyway, cheers again to the Pro Arte and here is the story about the break up of the Tokyo, which allied itself to Japanese schools and then to Yale University as it followed the academic affiliation model pioneered by the Pro Arte Quartet when they became artists-in-residence at the UW after being exiled here.
Here is the story about the Tokyo Quartet ‘s approaching end:
And here is a link to a live concert by the Tokyo Quartet on April 7 of Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. It is available for streaming from the New York City radio station WQXR via NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence”:
Enjoy, and let’s relish the music we have left to hear from the Tokyo Quartet – both live and whatever they have “in the can” for recordings.
And finally: Thank you, Tokyo String Quartet, for so much beauty over so many years.