The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society again brings its surefire summery approach to serious classical chamber music when it starts its 28th annual series this weekend

June 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just the calendar that makes the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society the official start of the increasingly busy summer classical musical season in Madison.

The real reason is that the summer chamber music series, about to start its 28th annual summer this Friday night, June 14, is downright summery in its approach.

Say “summer,” and you think of lightness, of fun, of playfulness. And those are the very same qualities – along with serious, first-rate performances of great music by outstanding musicians – that BDDS brings to its six programs spread out in 12 concerts over three weekends and three venues during the month of June.

By now both the performers (below, in a photo by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS) and the audiences know that the formula works, however finely tuned or slightly changed it is from one summer to the next.

WHAT’S THE SAME

This year much remains.

There are still door prizes, spoken introductions and stories, mystery guests and a colorful art installation by UW-Madison designer Carolyn Kallenborn.

The titles of the six programs for 12 concerts over three weekends still have groan-inducing puns — “Name Dropping” in the theme for this summer — that are based on the musicians’ names like “Founteneau of Youth” after the San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below top) and “Quadruple Axel” after the Montreal-based violin virtuoso Axel Strauss (below bottom).

There are still the usual venues: the Playhouse in the Overture Center (below top); the Stoughton Opera House (below middle); and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright compound in Spring Green.

There are still the many distinguished and accomplished musicians among the many imported guest artists and the many local musicians, including the co-founders and co-artistic directors flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below). The Ear can’t recall ever hearing a bad BDDS performance, even of music he didn’t like.

And there is a mix of older well-known and classic repertoire along with newer and neglected composers and works.

WHAT’S NEW

But some things are different too.

The first concert this Friday will have a post-concert reception with free champagne and dessert to celebrate the 28th season.

This summer, unlike recent ones, there is no vocal music. All music is instrumental.

At both Stoughton and Spring Green, you can get food. Go to the home website for details.

Especially new and noteworthy is that the Russian virtuoso accordion player Stas Venglevski (below), from Milwaukee, will also perform on programs. Venglevski performs on the bayan, a Russian-style accordion noted for its deep bass sound and range and purity of tone.

Venglevski will be featured in works that range from polkas and heart-on-the-sleeve tangos by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; down-and-dirty original works by Russian master Tatyana Sergeyeva and arrangements of favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and others.

This Wednesday night, June 12, from 7 to 9 p.m., Venglevski and Jutt will perform “Bayan-o-rama” at the Arts and Literature Lab, 2021 Winnebago Street. Tickets are $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served.

Here is a summary of the first weekend:

WEEK ONE

The elegance, charm, and finesse of French cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau is displayed in a program called “Fonteneau of Youth.”

It includes music written by great composers in their youth, including the ravishing Elegy for cello and piano of French composer Gabriel Fauré; the rhythmically exciting Trio for flute, cello and piano of living American composer Ned Rorem; and the astonishing D’un soir triste (One Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning), both for piano trio, of 21-year old Lili Boulanger (below), who was the Prix de Rome-winning composer sister of famed teacher Nadia Boulanger and who died very young. (You can hear both pieces by Lili Boulanger in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The great Franz Joseph Haydn—always the most youthful of composers, even into his late years—is represented by the masterful Piano Trio no. 28 in E major, in honor of BDDS’ 28th season.

“Fonteneau of Youth” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on this Friday, June 14, at 7:30 p.m. A free champagne and dessert reception will be held following the performance to celebrate the 28th season opener. It will also be performed in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater on Sunday, June 16, at 2:30 p.m.

Audience favorite Axel Strauss—not just a virtuoso violinist, but a virtuoso musician and artist of the highest distinction—will brave gravity-defying musical heights in “Quadruple Axel.” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Trio Sonata in D minor for violin, flute, cello and piano starts the program on an elegant note. Johannes Brahms’ fiery Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, raises the temperature significantly. And all sorts of hijinks are on display in Maurice Ravel’s extraordinary and ravishing Sonata for Violin and Piano.

“Quadruple Axel” will be performed at The Playhouse in the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater, Sunday, June 16, at 6:30 p.m.

For more information about the full BDDS season and how to purchase tickets ($43 and $49), go to: https://bachdancing.org


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Classical music: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Super-virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin makes his Madison debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend in concertos by Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel

April 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As a pianist, he is known as someone who can play more notes faster and more clearly than anyone one – in short, a “super-virtuoso.”

He is the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin (below), who will make his Madison debut this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra when he performs two concertos: “Burlesque” by Richard Strauss and the Piano Concerto in G Major by Maurice Ravel.

The program opens with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, “Prague,” and closes with Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea).

Performances take place in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 14, at 2:30 p.m.

An Open Rehearsal will be held on Thursday, April 11 — free and open to the public. Limited space is available (RSVP required by calling 608 257-3734). Patrons must arrive by 6:45 p.m. For more information about the concerts and rehearsal, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/an-auspicious-debut-marc-andre-hamelin/

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), who will conduct the concerts, says: “Marc-André Hamelin is one of the major pianists of our time. This program features two of the greatest German composers and two great French Impressionists. Always inspired by Mozart, I am delighted to open with his Prague symphony.

“Then comes Strauss’ Burlesque with Marc-André performing virtuosic and delightful musical fare. After intermission comes another favorite of mine, Ravel’s Piano Concerto with its sultry, cabaret-like slow movement that climaxes with a raucous but fun last movement. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Martha Argerich play that second movement with conductor Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.)

“The concert closes with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, his amazing tone poem that conjures up images of the sea both raging and calm, placing ultimate demands on the orchestra and creating an aural thrill for the audience.”

ABOUT MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN 

The Oregonian summarizes the featured soloist concisely: “Is there anything Marc-André Hamelin can’t do at the piano?” Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is known worldwide for his unrivaled blend of consummate musicianship and brilliant technique, as well as for his exploration of the rarities of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries — in concert and on disc.

Although primarily a performer, Hamelin has composed music throughout his career. He was a distinguished jury member of the 15th Van Cliburn Competition in 2017, where each of the 30 competitors in the Preliminary Round were required to perform Hamelin’s “L’Homme armé.” It marked the first time the composer of the commissioned work was also a member of the jury.

A prolific maker of recordings, Hamelin (below) was honored with the 2014 ECHO Klassik Instrumentalist of Year (Piano) and Disc of the Year for his three-disc set of “Busoni: Late Piano Music.” An album of his own compositions, “Hamelin: Études,” received a 2010 Grammy nomination and a first prize from the German Record Critics’ Association. Hamelin is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the German Record Critics’ Association.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Michael Allsen will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket-holders.

The MSO 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 Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/april2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/hamelin
 through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 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 $15 or $20 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.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 2018-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex
  • Out at the Symphony tickets include a seat in the Circle level of Overture Hall (regular price ($70-93), plus the after-party, for $45. Reception-only tickets are available for $25 each. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/out

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

Major funding for these concerts was provided by Madison Gas & Electric Foundation, Inc., Fred and Mary Mohs, Skofronick Family Charitable Trust and WPS Health Insurance. Additional funding was provided by Forte, James and Joan Johnston, Gary and Lynn Mecklenburg, Rodney Schreiner and Mark Blank, Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, 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: Organist and composer Chelsea Chen debuts at Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Organist Chelsea Chen (below) makes her Madison debut on this Tuesday night, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall as part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Organ series.

Ticket information is below.

Chen brings to her Overture Hall premiere an array of widely known classical pieces plus her own original composition.

Chen’s performance begins with Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta and Edvard Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46— continuing with Chen’s original work, the Taiwanese Suite, Camille Saint-Saens’ Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3, Ad Wammes’ Miroir, and finally, selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Composer Gjeilo (below) has praised Chen’s interpretation of Sinfonietta, which the organist has performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46, by Grieg is one of the most easily recognizable compositions within the musical art form. Subtitled “Morning,” it is the first of two suites that Grieg (below) transcribed from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 Norwegian play Peer Gynt.

The opus, albeit a short first movement from the suite, intends to instill imagery of the sunrise over the North African desert. Despite this, it is more commonly associated with the sweeping mountains, fjords and lakes that mark Norway’s landscape.

Chen’s own Taiwanese Suite combines the dynamic range of the organ with inflections of traditional Asian folksongs. It is composed of three movements: “Hills in the Springtime,” “Moonlight Blue” and “Mountain of Youth.”

Inspired by the works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and others, Saint-Saens (below) composed a variety of arrangements and selections for numerous occasions. By age 10, the French composer and child prodigy had given his first concert. His Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3 is, as some consider, the pinnacle of his body of compositions. (You can hear Chen’s playing of the Finale from the “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Miroir was composed by Dutch composer Ad Wammes (below) for Stephen Taylor to celebrate the organist’s appointment to the Nicolaïkerk, a church in the Netherlands. In an unconventional mirroring — hence the title — the right hand repeats the higher voices in the same pattern throughout the song, whereas the left hand varies texture, voice and tone in the lower registers. The result is a calming, low hum that is lifted by the glistening echoes of the upper registers.

To Holst, The Planets suite could be framed as “a series of mood pictures,” with its seven movements. Ironically, Holst (below) seemed to heavily dislike his explosive popularity resulting from the suite’s compositional structure. Despite his supposed negativity towards the piece, its inherent superb qualities of each movement — no two are alike — became a staple of evocative composition.

Following an academic career at the Juilliard School and Yale University, Chelsea Chen has practiced under the tutelage of known names in the musical world, such as Paul Jacobs and John Weaver. For more information about her, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/chelsea-chen/

Single Tickets are available for $20 each and can be purchased online at http://madisonsymphony.org/chen, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://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 tickets for $10 each. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

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

This performance is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ (below) that was custom-built by Klais Orgelbau of Germany. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.


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Classical music: Violinist Axel Strauss and pianist Trevor Stephenson will recreate a historic concert of Beethoven, Debussy and Bartok this Friday night

September 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Friday night, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at West Middleton Lutheran Church, the prize-winning and internationally acclaimed violinist Axel Strauss (below) — a Madison favorite through his many wonderful concerts with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach, Dancing and Dynamite Society — and pianist Trevor Stephenson, artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will collaborate on a program of masterpieces by Beethoven, Bartok and Debussy.

The event is something of a re-creation of a legendary concert given by famed violinist Joseph Szigeti (below top) and pianist-composer Bela Bartok (below bottom) at the Library of Congress on April 13, 1940 when Bartok, fleeing Europe and World War II, had been in the U.S. only a couple of days.

You can hear a recording of their historic performance of the Rhapsody by Bartok in the YouTube video at the bottom.

At the Sept. 14 concert, Strauss — who now teaches at McGill University in Montreal, Canada — and Stephenson will perform three major works that Szigeti and Bartok also played that April evening in 1940: Beethoven’s Sonata in A major Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”), Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 1 and Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, the last completed major work by Debussy (below) finished less than a year before his death in 1918. (You can find more about the impressive biography of Axel Strauss at http://www.axelstrauss.com and at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axel_Strauss  on Wikipedia.)

Stephenson will bring his 1855 Boesendorfer concert grand piano (both are below in a photo by Kent Sweitzer). Although heavily strung like a modern piano, this mid 19th-century Boesendorfer piano has no metal plate to alleviate the tension of the strings, but relies instead upon an ingenious wooden frame design.

The resonance of the sound is thus carried entirely by the wood, resulting in a complex and dark tone wonderfully suited to the sensibility of 19th- and early 20th-century music.

The West Middleton Lutheran Church (below top and bottom) is at 3763 Pioneer Road — the intersection of Mineral Point Road and Pioneer Road, just 10 minutes west of West Towne Mall.

It has superb acoustics for chamber music. The seating is very comfortable. The sight-lines are terrific. And there is plenty of parking.

Concert tickets are $25 available at the door (credit card, check and cash) or in advance (check only). Seating is limited to 225.

To reserve tickets, email trevor@trevorstephenson.com

Find more information at www.trevorstephenson.com.


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Classical music: Con Vivo closes its chamber music season with satisfying performances of string duos, violin romances and a clarinet quintet in a new, more intimate space

June 4, 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 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 season’s closing concert by the Con Vivo! chamber ensemble (below) took on an extra degree of novelty.

Usually the group has performed in the main sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. But the acoustics there are variable and not always ideal for small ensembles.

This time, the performers moved to the chapel, a much smaller room in the building complex. With a high ceiling but modest space, this venue has a much more appropriate quality for chamber music. It’s a trifle hard, but not reverberant — a good place for intimacy and directness of sound. This should become one base of choice for the ensemble now.

The program was split interestingly between two different musical realms.

The first half consisted of duos. At the core was a set of six brief pieces drawn from the 44 Duos by Bela Bartok, published as his Op. 104. Written for two violins, but adaptable to other string instruments, they were delivered here by violist Janse Vincent and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend (below), in charming fashion.

Framing them were two violin romances, each written with orchestral accompaniment that was rendered on the piano by Dan Lyons. One was the Romance No. 2 in F Major, Op. 50, by Ludwig van Beethoven played by Kathryn Taylor (below).

The other — which in fact originally began life as a movement of a string quartet — was the Romance in F minor, Op. 11, by Antonin Dvorak. This was played by Olga Pomolova (below). It is no disrespect to the other players to note that her performance was outstanding for rich tone and strong feeling. (You can hear Dvorak’s lovely Romance in its orchestral version in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A different world was drawn upon after the intermission, one for larger-scale chamber writing. This was the wonderful Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for Clarinet and Strings. In this work, clarinetist Robert Taylor joined the four string players.

This is a mellow late work from Brahms, full of his artful denseness of textures, yet finely sensitive to balances. It is remarkable how the clarinet is constantly shifted between blending with the strings and standing apart from them. The performance was worthy of the challenges, full of spirit yet carefully controlled at all times — a performance that allowed the listener to ponder, and savor.

The sum total was a very satisfying concert, and one that suggested experiences with this chapel chamber should continue to be explored.


Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Prize-winning violinist Ilya Kaler returns to perform Paganini with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night

April 18, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo, clarinetist Jose Garcia-Taborda and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Mikhail Glinka, Max Bruch and Carlos Guastavino. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you were in the audience two years ago when violinist Ilya Kaler (below) made his Madison debut with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it is unlikely that you have forgotten it.

Kaler proved himself a complete virtuoso when he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major. The audience went wild and so did the critics, including The Ear.

Backed up with a first-rate accompaniment by music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO, Kaler showed a perfect mix of dramatic virtuosity, songful lyricism, lush tone and sonic clarity that you rarely hear.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center Kaler returns to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), again under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The vehicle this time is the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7, by perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso of all time, Niccolo Paganini (below, playing for astonished listeners).

The concerto is famous for the “La Campanella” (The Bell) theme of the last movement that inspired the show-off etude of the same name by the great pianist Franz Liszt, who sought to emulate and transfer Paganini’s fiendish violin virtuosity on the piano. (You can hear that last movement in YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the program are: The Mozart-like and operatic String Sonata No. 2 by a 12-year-old Goiachino Rossini; and the Symphony No. 81 in G Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer who is one of the interpretative strengths of Sewell (below).

Tickets are $15-$80. For ticket information and purchases, got to: http://www.overture.org/events/ilya-kaler

Born in Russia and trained at the famed Moscow Conservatory, Kaler now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. He also won major gold medals in the 1980s at three major international competitions: the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; the Paganini Competition in Genoa; and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki.

He also records frequently for Naxos Records. To find out more about the impressive Kaler, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilya_Kaler


Classical music: The King’s Singers will mark 50 years when they perform Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

April 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed a cappella singing group The King’s Singers (below) will be marking its 50th anniversary when it performs the annual Fan Taylor Concert – named to honor the first director of the Wisconsin Union Theater – on this Saturday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall.

Tickets are $25-$45 general admission, $20 for youths and $10 for UW students. For more information, including the complete program, background, audio-video samples and how to purchase tickets, go to  https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/the-kings-singers/. You can also phone 608-265-ARTS (2787) or go in person. See locations and hours here.

Celebrating their Golden Anniversary this year, The King’s Singers are widely acclaimed for the quality of their singing and diverse repertoire, which includes over 200 commissioned works from the world’s leading composers.

The commissioned arrangements come from a breadth of musical genres: jazz standards to pop chart hits, medieval motets to Renaissance madrigals, and new scores by young composers.

The upcoming concert is part of their 50th anniversary world tour, and the program showcases their signature blend, purity of tone, and diversity of repertoire, with selections ranging from Renaissance polyphony to brand new commissions celebrating the 50th anniversary.

This love of diversity has always fuelled The King’s Singers’ commitment to creating new music. A panoply of commissioned works by many of the greatest composers of our times – including Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, John Rutter, Toru Takemitsu, Sir John Tavener and Eric Whitacre – sits alongside countless bespoke arrangements in the group’s extensive repertoire.

One of these is called “To Stand in This House” by Nico Muhly (below), which sets various texts by scholars who originated at King’s College, Cambridge, where The Kings Singers were founded.

The program, GOLD, charts a journey through the music that has defined The King’s Singers so far, from Renaissance polyphony to art song to, naturally, close harmony favorites.

The group also looks toward the future with several commissions for the 50th season from composers and arrangers with who they have ties, including, in addition to Nico Muhly’s work, “We Are” by composer/conductor Bob Chilcott, himself a former member of The King’s Singers; and “Quintessentially” by Joanna and Alexander L’Estrange (below), which humorously tells the story of The King’s Singers’ past 50 years.

The King’s Singers was founded in 1968 at King’s College in Cambridge, England. They continually wow audiences across the globe in over 125 concerts a year. The group has won two Grammy awards and was inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame for its vocal artistry and excellence. (You hear a sample from the group’s new anniversary album, “Gold,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Madison concert is presented by the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Performing Arts Committee.

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. WORT-FM 89.9 is the media sponsor.


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