The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Steve Kurr talks about his new work celebrating Middleton that will be premiered Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra alongside Mozart and Dvorak

October 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, Oct. 9, the mostly amateur but highly praised Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will open its 10th anniversary season, which is dedicated to retired critic John W. Barker for his help in championing the ensemble.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the comfortable and acoustically excellent Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), which is attached to Middleton High School, 2100 Bristol Street.

Admission is $15 for the public, free for students. Tickets are available from the Willy Street Coop West and at the door. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Auditorium doors open at 7 p.m. 

The appealing program features J.J. Koh (below), principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, as guest soloist in the beautiful and poignant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the sublime slow movement, which may sound familiar from when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “Out of Africa.”)

Also on the program is the popular Symphony No. 9 – “From the New World” – by Antonin Dvorak.

But raising the curtain will be the world premiere of a work that was written specifically for this orchestra on this occasion in its own city.

The piece was composed by Steve Kurr, who teaches at Middleton High School and who is the resident conductor of the MCO.

For more information about the MCO’s season along with critical reviews and information about how to join it or support it and how to enter its new youth concerto competition, go to:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Kurr, below, will conduct the premiere of his own work, which he recently discussed via email with The Ear:

How much do you compose and why do you compose?

When I do compose, which is not often, it is usually with a specific event in mind. I have written several things for the musicians at Middleton High School, including a four-movement string symphony, a piece for a retiring colleague, and several works we have taken on tour.

In this case, the 10th season of the Middleton Community Orchestra provided a great reason to write. I always enjoy the process, but it can be time-consuming, so I don’t do it as often as I might like.

How does composing fit in with your teaching and conducting?

Most of the composing I do comes in the summer because it is when I can devote larger chunks of time. This new work was germinating in some form for several years, but almost all of the notes-on-the-page work came this past June.

How do you compose?

I approach composition in an analytical way, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I think about structure early on in the process, both at the full work scale and in the smaller sections.

Most of my work comes on the computer in the notation software Finale, and some comes on the piano or on a string instrument.

I run ideas past my wife Nancy for her input and for this piece I also got a huge amount of advice and help from composer and MCO violist Neb Macura (below). (Thanks, Neb! You were invaluable!) Most of the melodic material came to me in the car on the way to school.

How would you describe your musical or tonal style?

I would say that my style is mostly tonal and not all that adventurous in terms of harmony. The fact that I have spent much of my musical career studying the works of the Classical and Romantic periods shows through. And yet you might find some moments that hint at more recent styles.

Can you briefly tell the public about the new piece to be premiered?

“Good Neighbors” is subtitled “Episodes for Orchestra” and the connected episodes describe various aspects of the Middleton community.

Episode 1 depicts the city of Middleton and its bustling energy within a small town feel. Episode 2 is about all of the water around, including the creeks, ponds and Lake Mendota. Episode 3 is the Good Neighbor Festival, appearing at the end of summer for so many years. Episode 4 describes the land around, including the rolling farmland, the driftless area, and the Ice Age Trail.

The final episode brings together tunes from the previous four, combining them to demonstrate that the Good Neighbor City is more than the sum of its parts. The opening theme shows up in several different versions throughout, including most notably the theme from Episode 4.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

At first I considered the endeavor almost self-indulgent as I set a piece of my own in front of the ensemble. Then I started to feel presumptuous. It is a humbling experience to see my name on a program with Mozart and Dvorak, two of my favorite composers.

It has been a terrific experience working with these fine musicians as we realize this new work together. My thanks go to them for their willingness to help me present this gift to the Middleton community.


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

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

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

By Jacob Stockinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 2018
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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

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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Classical music: The UW Concert Choir, Choral Union and Symphony Orchestra will perform world premieres, local premieres and new music in three concerts this weekend

April 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following messages from UW composer Laura Schwendinger and from Beverly Taylor, the director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music who is also the assistant conductor and chorus director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

Writes conductor Beverly Taylor: This is a busy and musically fascinating weekend for me coming up.

On Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, there is a special concert by the Concert Choir (below) on the subject of Art Born of Tragedy, with the acclaimed guest cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Tickets are $15, $5 for students. For more information about tickets as well as the performers and the program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-4-matt-haimovitz/

Then in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday night and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night, there are two performances of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by the 20th-century composer Paul Hindemith by the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (below). It is a work that to my knowledge has never been performed in Madison.

Tickets are $15, $8 for students. For more information about obtaining tickets and about the concert, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-union-uw-symphony-orchestra/

Here is more information about the events:

CONCERT CHOIR

The Concert Choir performance explores in music of several centuries the theme of “Art Born of Tragedy” — how outside events can be the spark that causes the creation of works of substance that range from the gentle and comforting to rage and despair.

We will sing music from the Renaissance: part of the Thomas Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah (on the ancient destruction of Jerusalem),” and a John Wilbye madrigal “Draw on Sweet Night for a Broken Heart.”

We will present three works from modern composers: one is a world premiere by the prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger (below top), my colleague at the UW-Madison, for viola — played by Sally Chisholm (below bottom) of the UW Pro Arte Quartet — and wordless chorus. It is called “For Paris” in memory of those killed in the Paris terrorist bombings of 2015.

(Adds composer Laura Schwendinger: “The viola starts this short work by referencing only for a moment the merest idea of a ‘musette song,’ one that might be heard on an evening in a Paris cafe. The choir enters with a simple refrain that repeats again and again, each time with a little more material, as an unanswered question of sorts. Each time the viola reenters the texture, the music becomes more pressing in a poignant manner, until it arrives in its highest register, only to resolve with the choir as it quietly acquiesces in the knowledge that the answer may not be known.”)

We will present a short “O vos omnes” (O you who pass by) written by Pennsylvania composer Joseph Gregorio (below), composed in memory of a Chinese girl hit by a car and left to die.

The third piece is a reprise of “Après moi, le deluge” by Luna Pearl Woolf (below top), which we premiered and recorded 11 years ago. We are lucky to have back the wonderful internationally known cellist Matt Haimovitz (below bottom), who premiered this work with it. The text, written by poet Eleanor Wilner, mixes the Noah story with the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The term “Après moi, le deluge” is a term attributed to Louis XV or his mistress Madame Pompadour, and means “after me the flood” — referring either to the chaos after his reign, or that what happens afterword bears no importance for him.

The work has four different moods like a symphony — with strong themes at the start and cries for help, followed by the slow movement despair, a scherzo-like depiction of havoc, and a final movement that is like a New Orleans funeral, upbeat and Dixieland.

Throughout the program we also present spirituals that depict loneliness or salvation from trouble.

UW CHORAL UNION

In certain ways, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed resembles the Concert Choir concert in that it contains a number of moods and styles as well, under a dark title. The subtitle of the work is “a Requiem for Those We Love.”

It was commissioned by the great choral and orchestral conductor Robert Shaw as a tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his death and the train ride that carried him from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Washington, D.C.

The text that Paul Hindemith (below top) chose is by Walt Whitman (below bottom), who wrote his poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the funeral train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois.

Whitman’s grief is combined with pride and joy in the countryside that the train traverses, and his feelings find an outlet in the thrush that sings out its song. His sense of a sustaining universe is a contrast to his depiction of the despair and ravages of the Civil War.

Hindemith’s calling the work a “Requiem for Those We Love,” puts it, like the Brahms’ “German” Requiem, into a class of non-liturgical requiems — that is, the texts are not those that are part of the Catholic Mass for the Dead, but are other selected texts of joy or remembrance.

Hindemith’s style can loosely be described as tonal that veers away into dissonance and returns again to the home key. The Prelude and opening movement are dark; the solo songs of baritone (James Held, below top) and mezzo-soprano (Jennifer D’Agostino, below bottom) are marvelous; the fugue on the glories of America is glorious and other sections are soft and tender. (NOTE: You can hear the orchestral prelude of the work, with composer Paul Hindemith conducting the New York Philharmonic, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The work is hard for both chorus and orchestra, but well worth the effort. The piece is about 80 minutes long and will be performed without interruption. It’s a work I’ve always wanted to do, having heard it performed at Tanglewood many years ago. I’m delighted to have the chance now.


Classical music: “I like tunes,” says Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Cabaniss, who talks about his “Double Rainbow” piano concerto. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists will give the world premiere of the work this Friday night.

April 24, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), which likes to mix things and up during its winter season, the concert this Friday night is something special to close out the current season.

The WCO will give the world premiere of the “Double Rainbow” Piano Concerto by Thomas Cabaniss, which was commissioned for the WCO.

The performance will also feature husband-and-wife duo-pianists Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn.

The concert is Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Also on the program is Maurice Ravel’s Neo-classical homage to World War I, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann.

Tickets are $10 to $80.

For more information about the program, the soloists and tickets, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-2/

Composer Thomas Cabaniss recently did an email Q&A for The Ear:

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your career to the reader?

I’m Thomas Cabaniss (below). I am a composer and teaching artist from Charleston, South Carolina. I have lived in New York for the last 30 years, and so I greedily claim both places as home. I teach at the Juilliard School — where I met Michael and Jessica Shinn — and I also lead arts education projects at Carnegie Hall.

After graduating from Yale in 1984, I was an assistant conductor on a variety of projects including Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Setting out to forge a career as a composer, I moved to New yolk City, which had the added benefit of being the same city where my girlfriend was attending medical school. A few years later we married and settled in Manhattan.

To start, I worked primarily as a theater composer, but I was also writing piano and chamber music on the side, and doing arts education work in between shows. In 1990 I scored and arranged a short film called The Lunch Date, which won the Palme D’Or and the Academy Award. In 1995 I joined the New York Philharmonic education programs, eventually becoming the orchestra’s Education Director.

I kept composing, and wrote a chamber opera called The Sandman, which was premiered in New York in 2002 and revived again the following season. In 2004 I was appointed to special education position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and at the same time I wrote a series of evening length dance scores that were premiered in New York.

In 2009, I began working as composer-in-residence for the LinkUp program at Carnegie Hall, which has grown in that time to serve over 95 orchestras around the world and across the U.S. – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

I also helped to create the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall, which serves young parents in shelters, hospitals and prisons, and we are working hard to extend that work across the country through a series of partnerships.

How would you describe your musical style in general and the style of the new two-piano concerto specifically? Accessible? Tonal or atonal? Modernist or Neo-Classical? Melodic or percussive? Are there composers or works that have influenced your style?

I like tunes. I like to write songs, and I like to sing, so my music tends to value melody. My works are generally tonal, often spiked with cluster chords and other atonal devices, but I am always interested in the musical gravity of tonal centers. (You can hear a sample of Thomas Cabaniss’ music in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This piece is inspired by its soloists, Michael and Jessica Shinn (below), and by the image of a Double Rainbow (also the work’s title). I have written Michael and Jessica pieces for piano-four hands, and there is one piece they have championed called Tiny Bits of Outrageous Love. Something about the chemistry of their relationship as musicians (and as husband and wife) has inspired me to create music that is particularly exciting and intimate.

And yes, I suppose most composers embed hints of the music they love in the music they write, and I am no different. Tiny Bits was a kind of homage to the Brahms Waltzes for piano-four hands, and Double Rainbow nods to Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Leos Janacek and John Adams. I’m sure listeners will hear other influences, too.

What would you like listeners to know about and listen for in the piano concerto? What were the special challenges of writing for duo-pianists?

This is from the program note I wrote for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

DOUBLE RAINBOW is based on an experience I had with my family on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, about 20 years ago. On this particular August day, there was a huge rain in the early afternoon, many dark clouds, thunder (but no lightning). After the storm, from the porch of our beach rental house, we saw not one, but two rainbows (below). My sister-in-law is an avid photographer, and so she coaxed us all down onto the beach so she could get a pristine angle. That alone might have been enough inspiration for a piece of music, but when we got to the water’s edge, as Julia was snapping her photos, a dolphin jumped out of the water in a vertical launch, the tail clearing the water’s surface. It was one of those moments that seemed so unbelievable that none of us said a word. 

I have always been fascinated by the search for the elusive “perfect moment,” and DOUBLE RAINBOW is a sort of study of that kind of exploration. It is all bound up in the idea of “doubleness,” represented by the two pianos. It is divided into three movements: “Surfaces” (exploring the accumulation of drops of water from tiny, atomized particles), “Disturbances” (exploring imbalances and the storms that result from them), and “Revelation” (of the Double Rainbow). Not surprising in a double concerto, there is a great deal of dialogue between the pianos, and the orchestra has more of an accompanying role in the first two movements. The final movement is different, though. Everybody is in, and the music pulses with magic. The movement seems to be headed for a big climax, but at the last moment, it suddenly slows down and there are stars.

The main challenge for me in writing a double piano concerto is all those fingers! Twenty of them, and they are capable of so much. The music I write does not usually focus on virtuosity, and yet I also wanted it to be a vehicle for them to be expressive and dynamic. I worked hard to achieve a balance between the lyricism and the fireworks – we’ll see how audiences experience it.

What else would you like to say?

I am especially excited to be able to visit Madison for the premiere. I’ll get to meet members of the family of Jessica Chow Shinn (below, she is a Madison native), and I have a former student in the orchestra (Midori Samson, Second Bassoon). My Carnegie Lullaby Project collaborators include another Madison native (Ann Gregg) and Elizabeth Snodgrass, who is originally from Appleton (I think) but recently moved to Madison. I will get to meet WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) in person. We have been doing some Skype rehearsals and phone consultations. It will be great to watch Andrew in action.

While we are here, my wife Deborah will be giving Grand Rounds at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and my son Will leads an a cappella group at University of Chicago (Voices In Your Head), and this year they have been singing frequently with a wonderful University of Wisconsin group (Fundamentally Sound).

The last few seasons the Madison Symphony Orchestra has been offering Carnegie Hall LinkUp concerts to kids in grades 3-5, and this year is no exception. They will perform The Orchestra Moves in May, for which I wrote two of the works (Come To Play and Away I Fly) and arranged another (Cidade Maravilhosa).

This project has been a few years in the making, and so for Michael and Jessica and me, this is a kind of celebration. We can’t wait to share DOUBLE RAINBOW with you.


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Classical music: Jazz and classical music are closely related and work well together, says composer Daniel Schnyder. He discusses “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which the Madison Opera stages in its Midwest premiere this FRIDAY night — NOT Saturday — and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.

For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)

charlie-parkers-yardbird-logo-for-maidson-opera

The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)

Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:

daniel-schnyder-2017

What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?

I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.

I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.

I do not see classical music and jazz as two completely different things. Jazz is by nature a synthesis of European music influences and African music.

The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.

lawrence-brownlee-as-charlie-parker-opera-philadelphia

How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?

In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.

The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.

The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts —  but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.

It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.

charlie-parker-1

In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?

I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.

If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.

We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.

The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.

In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.

He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”

The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-women-opera-philadelphia

Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?

There might be many different reasons for that:

1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.

2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.

3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.

4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.

5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.

6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.

7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.

The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.

8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.

I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.

9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-female-singer-opera-philadelphia

Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?

I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.


Classical music: Local composer and UW-Madison alumnus Pat Doty talks about his Tuba Concerto, which he will premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra on Wednesday night.

May 27, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (MCO, below), which has gotten better and better and rarely disappoints even in ambitious and difficult music, will wind up its fifth anniversary season this coming Wednesday night with a brass extravaganza.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the modern, comfortable and spacious Middleton Performing Arts Center (below) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

Tickets are $10; students get in for FREE.

Advance tickets are available at Willy Street Coop West. The Box office opens at 6:30 p.m. and the doors open at 7 p.m.

The program includes The “Capriccio Italienne” by Peter Tchaikovsky; the Carnival Overture by Antonin Dvorak; the Horn Concerto by Reinhold Glière with soloist Paul Litterio (below); and the world premiere of the Tuba Concerto by University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music graduate Pat Doty, who will also be the soloist.

Paul Literrio with horn

Steve Kurr (below) will conduct.

Steve Kurr conducting

Here is a link with more information about the MCO and how to join it and support it:

http://www.middletoncommunityorchestra.org/home

Composer and tuba performer Pat Doty (below, in a photo by Steven Thompson) answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

Pat Doty Head Shot CR Steven Thompson

Can you tell us briefly about your background, including your education and performance history?

I grew up in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. I hold a master’s degree in tuba performance from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I was a member of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band for four years, including three trips to the Rose Bowl.

While at the UW-Madison, I performed with the Wind Ensemble (including a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City), Concert Band, Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble, the Middleton Community Orchestra, Low Brass Ensemble, 4BA Tuba Quartet, Madrigal Singers and the Lumberjack Brass Quintet.

My solo tuba performance credits range from solo recitals to guest appearances at schools across southern Wisconsin.

When and how did you start composing? What works have you written in the past?

I first started writing music when I was in high school and I was very interested in singer/songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel. During my time at Mount Horeb High School, I wrote more than 500 songs, most of which never made it past the grand piano in the living room.

When I started graduate school, the tuba studio at UW-Madison was treated to a guest performance by Øystein Baadsvik, who really inspired me to start writing for tuba. I was also heavily influenced by my undergraduate professor, John Stevens (below).

john stevens with tuba 1

My catalogue now includes dozens of works for solo tuba, chamber ensembles and large ensembles. It probably comes as no surprise that I compose rather frequently for tuba quartet and brass quintet.

Additionally, I write a great deal of music for my wife Brigid, who holds a degree in vocal performance from UW-Madison, to sing with me accompanying her on the piano.(You can hear them in a YouTube video at the bottom in a song by Pat Doty.)

Pat In The Studio

How would you describe your compositional style — tonal or atonal, accessible, melodic and so forth?

My music is tonal, accessible, melodic and so forth. I jest, but I really do strive to write music that is very fun, beautiful and accessible to a wide-ranging audience.

My major influences are not famous classical composers, but rather those musicians who I listened to when I was growing up.

For example, I draw a lot from pop music and classic rock. I know that might seem like an odd connection — pop music and the tuba — but I have always fallen back on my vocal training to instruct my tuba playing, and I see no reason why the same connection shouldn’t exist in my compositions.

To put it simply, I approach writing for solo tuba (with any sort of accompaniment) in quite the same way that I approach writing a song at the piano. I always have a poem, an idea, something in mind that inspires me. For example, my tuba duet “Mendota” is based on a poem that I wrote for a pop song, but it works beautifully for an instrumental piece.

Pat Doty Playing Tuba with pianist Steven Thompson

What would you like the public to know about your new Tuba Concerto, which you will perform and premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra?

First and foremost, my Tuba Concerto doesn’t take itself too seriously. That is a recurring theme in my music. I am very excited for the premiere with the Middleton Community Orchestra, which is sounding great by the way, and I really hope that people have as much fun and find as much joy in listening as I do playing this music.

A couple of interesting quirks to note are that there is a large, essential euphonium part in this piece, and that there is a marimba solo in the third movement. These are both things that, I think it is safe to say, are not particularly common in orchestral music.

I used a euphonium (below) and no tuba in the orchestra because I want this to be a piece that an orchestra could use to feature their own tubist if they so choose. Also, I am friends with quite a few euphonium players.

Euphonium

What else would you like to say?

First, I would like to say thank you to the Middleton Community Orchestra for premiering my Tuba Concerto. I am very much looking forward to the performance for many reasons, not the least of which is that this will be my first chance to present my compositions to a broad classical music audience.

I would also like to mention my new record label, Merp Entertainment, which I co-founded with my wife Brigid last year. Our debut CD “Dare to Entertain” has found national success, particularly on the internet streaming service Spotify, where it has amassed more than 3 million song streams to date.

For more information about this, please visit www.merpentertainment.com. For more information about me, please visit www.patdoty.com.


Classical music: This Friday night and Sunday afternoon, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs music composed by immigrants to the U.S.

April 14, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Robert Gehrenbeck (below), the talented and energetic director of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir who also directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, writes:

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present “Songs In a New Land” on this Friday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., in Madison and on Sunday, April 17 at 3 p.m. at Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., in Janesville.

Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Advance tickets are available from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org. They are also available at the door.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

The WCC’s concert will celebrate composers who were immigrants from the 15th century to the present, including emigres to the United States from China, Russia, Syria, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

At a time when immigration has become a burning issue in national politics, the WCC’s program highlights composers who emigrated from the country of their birth to make new homes elsewhere. They imported traditions from their homelands and enriched the cultural life of their adopted countries in innumerable ways.

Their reasons for leaving home were varied-some moved voluntarily but many were forced to emigrate for political, economic or religious reasons or, often, a combination of all of these.

While the experience of leaving behind all that is familiar and making a new life in a foreign country was rarely easy, the interaction of old and new influences resulted in some of the most lasting and unique artistic creations in history.

Most of the featured composers were or are immigrants to the United States, but the program opens with a set of Renaissance motets—“Stabat Mater” by Josquin des Prez (below top) and “Domine, Convertere” by Orlando di Lasso (below bottom) — demonstrating that migrant composers have played a major role throughout history.

Josquin Des Prez

Orlando Gibbons

Some of the more recent composers represented are: Kurt Weill, whose Kiddush was composed for Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City; Chen Yi (below top), represented by “A Set of Chinese Folksongs”; Osvaldo Golijov (below bottom), with an excerpt from his “Pasion segun San Marcos” (Passion According to St. Mark); and 20th-century giants Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.

Chen Yi

Osvaldo Golijov 2

Although Schoenberg and Stravinsky were known for their dissonant, modernist works, much of the music they composed in the U.S. was tempered by an effort to communicate with audiences here. During the 1940s, both men ended up settling in Hollywood, along with countless other exiled European artists fleeing totalitarian regimes and persecution at home.

In the case of Schoenberg (below), even though he is known as “the father of atonality,” and the originator of “12-tone” music, he continued to compose tonal music throughout his life, and often wrote in a more accessible style for amateur musicians. The WCC will present two such tonal works by Schoenberg: “Verbundenheit” (Solidarity) for male chorus, and the folksong arrangement, “Mein Herz in steten treuen” (My Heart, Forever Faithful).

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

In the American works of Stravinsky (below), the Credo movement of his 1947 Mass was subtly influenced by American Jazz.

Igor Stravinsky old 2

Joining the WCC will be Madison organist Mark Brampton Smith, who will accompany several pieces at the organ as well as perform solo organ works by Paul Hindemith and Joaquin Nin-Culmell (two additional mid-century immigrants to the U.S.).

Mark Brampton Smith

The movements from Stravinsky’s Mass will be performed with Brampton Smith at organ and guest trombonist Michael Dugan (below), who will also enhance Josquin des Prez’s “Stabat Mater” by playing sackbut, the Renaissance ancestor of the trombone.

Michael Dugan

Guest percussionist Stephen Cherek will enliven several of the Latin American selections, playing a variety of instruments.

Here are some YouTube links to sample performances:

Josquin des Prez, “Stabat Mater”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsayDDRl3kI

Orlando di Lasso, “Domine Convertere”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufP3S_M4mog

Kurt Weill, “Kiddush”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RI2jTYqso0

Chen Yi, “Mo Li Hwa” (“Jasmine Flower” from A Set of Chinese Folksongs)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtlsW2ZjSHA

Osvaldo Golijov, “Demos Gracias” (from La Pasion segun San Marcos)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vldVEk29s3Y

Arnold Schoenberg, “Verbundenheit” (from Six Pieces for Male Chorus)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPAeA3sIoc8

Arnold Schoenberg, “Mein Herz in steten Treuen”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPsE1LBMHrs&index=5&list=PLdXviD-nr2a7RIabEqL5XrXLi4G7V71tP

Igor Stravinsky, Credo (from Mass)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBpfSfq9v0A


Classical music: Conservative Republican presidential candidate and Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz wants to ban the tritone – or Devil’s chord – from classical music. NOT. Then again, maybe he does

March 21, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the first day when you can vote early via absentee ballot for the presidential primary election in Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 5, when you can also vote to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.

And tomorrow, Tuesday, brings more presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats in the Western states of Arizona and Utah. Plus, there will also be Democratic caucuses in Idaho.

So the following political piece — a pseudo-news report — seems timely and appropriate, especially given the drive by establishment Republicans to rally and choose the ultra-conservative U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (below) as a way to stop New York City businessman Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Sure, it’s a satire.

But it is a very well done satire — about something that was indeed banned in the Renaissance and Baroque eras by the Roman Catholic  Church.

But like so much satire, it is fun that also cuts close to the bone and contains more than a grain of truth about Cruz and about his many “first day on the job” promises if he gets elected president.

Cruz, the son of an evangelical minister, is such a devout and intolerant Christian fundamentalist, it is almost as if he is waging his own jihad, much like the Islamic terrorist state ISIS, on any culture he considers unChristian and heretical to his personal faith and what he considers to be the inerrant and literal truth of the Bible.

Hmm. Does that qualify him as an extremist or radical?

To The Ear, what is really and truly scary is Cruz — not the music.

And it is hard to say who is more threatening as a potential president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

Well, make up your own mind, fellow music-lovers.

Here is the satire from submediant.com. It’s a good read with lots of details, specific composers and food for thought.

http://www.submediant.com/2016/03/15/citing-evangelical-faith-ted-cruz-calls-to-ban-satanic-tritone/

And here is a YouTube lesson in music theory that offers an explanation with examples of the Satanic tritone:


Classical music: University Opera will stage three performances of “Transformations” this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night.

March 8, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take children’s fairy tales – such as “Sleeping Beauty” (below) — and recast them through adult reinterpretations. You can get some pretty weird and dark and humorous results.

Henry Meynel Rheam painting Sleeping Beauty

That is not only the formula for Stephen Sondheim’s popular Broadway musical and later Hollywood movie “Into the Woods.”

It also worked for the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anne Sexton, who grew depressed and killed herself at age 45. Her versions then became an opera.

anne sexton

The music, described as tonal and accessible, is by Conrad Susa (below), who taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The contemporary opera has been popular and widely staged.

Conrad Susa

This weekend and early next week, University Opera – the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music – will give three performances in Music Hall of the work on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. (NOT 3:30 as first posted here mistakenly) and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOTE: An ad on Wisconsin Public Radio erroneously lists the performance times on Friday and Tuesday nights as 7 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively.)

Admission is $25, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Members of the cast even posted an invitation video on YouTube:

For more information, visit the A Tempo blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, which features remarks from interim opera director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio), who is based in New York City, and details about the pre-concert discussion on Friday night from 6 to 7 p.m. (There will also be talk back sessions after each performance.):

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/university-opera-presents-spring-show-transformations/

David Ronis color CR Luke DeLalio

The music director is graduate student in conducting Kyle Knox (below), who recently conducted Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” for the Madison Opera and who conducts ensembles at the UW-Madison and the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Kyle Knox 2

For even more background, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2016/02/12/university-opera-presents-transformations/

Here is a sample, a YouTube video of the “Hansel and Gretel” section of “Transformations”:


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