The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Band and choral music is on tap this Sunday at the UW-Madison and Edgewood College

October 15, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a busy weekend for music, and tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 16, it continues.

For fans of band and choral music, a lot of choices are on tap at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and Edgewood College.

Here is the lineup:

At 1 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University Bands (below top) at the UW-Madison will perform under conductors Darin Olson (below bottom), Nathan Froebe, Justin Lindgre. Sorry, no word on the program.

UW concert band

Darin Olson

At 2:30 p.m. St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood College Concert Band presents its Fall concert.

Admission is FREE with a free will offering to benefit the Luke House Community Meal Program.

The program, under the direction of Walter Rich (below, in a photo by Edgewood College) will perform music by John Williams, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Strauss.

The program combines those three legendary names with a selection of new music by three young composers: Brian Balmages, Sean O’Loughlin and the emerging American star Daniel Elder.

The Edgewood College Concert Band provides students and Madison-area community musicians with the opportunity to perform outstanding wind literature. The band has performed a variety of works, ranging from classic British band literature of the early 20th century to transcriptions, marches, and modern compositions.

The group charges no admission for concerts, but often collects a freewill offering for Luke House, a local community meal program. The group rehearses on Wednesday evenings from 7-9 p.m.

Walter Rich

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music will host the FREE Choral Collage Concert (its logo is below).

choral-collage-logo

The concert features many groups: the Concert Choir (below top), Chorale, Madrigal Singers, Women’s Choir (below bottom), University Chorus and Master Singers.

Concert Choir

uw women's choir

The program, drawn from the Baroque, Classical and Modern eras, includes music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the beautiful “Ave Verum Corpus,” which you can hear with Leonard Bernstein conducting, in the YouTube video at the bottom), Benjamin Britten, Johann Schein, Arvo Part (below), Orlando di Lasso and others.

Arvo Part

For more information and a link to the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-choral-collage/


Classical music: Old music and new music mingle superbly at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival through a concert with viols, a countertenor and a new composition by John Harbison

September 1, 2016
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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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photos for this review.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The second of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s three public concerts, which took place on Tuesday evening, was a study in the old and the new, and the mingling thereof.

The program title was, in fact, “Viol Music, Then and Now.” The performing group was the Second City Musick Consort of Viols of Chicago (below)  — three players from there, plus visitor Brady Lanier.

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Craig Trompeter, Russell Wagner, Anna Steinhoff at the Planetarium, Chicago, May 30, 2013

Much, but hardly all, of their contributions were consort pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, although a certain number of transcriptions — ironically, of later music — were involved.

Three Fantasias for three viols by William Byrd and one by John Jenkins for four viols were prime specimens. Two pairs of examples from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias in 4 Parts represented a late contribution to the consort literature, but were probably intended — primarily, if not exclusively — for members of the violin family, not viols.

Token Creek viols JWB

With the addition of countertenor Nathan Medley, groups of “consort songs” were presented: three by Byrd and one each by four different composers of the late-Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. These were capped by one of the favorite airs of Purcell, “Fairest Isle”— which is a part of his large “semi-opera” King Arthur.

Token Creek viols and countertenor closeup JWB

The program’s centerpiece, however, was a new work by festival co-founder and co-artistic director, John Harbison (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow and who teaches at MIT.

John Harbison MIT

The nature and the scoring of this work, The Cross of Snow, was defined by the patron who commissioned it. This was local businessman William Wartmann (below), who intended it as a tribute to his deceased wife, the painter and singer Joyce Wartmann.

wiiliam wartmann

It was understood from the outset that it would be written for countertenor and consort of viols, and that the texts set would come from 19th-century poetic literature.

The choice eventually fell on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lost his wife tragically, in a fire. The three poems set are: The Cross of Snow, Suspira and “Some day, some day.” All of them deal with the deep and enduring pain over the loss of a loved one. The three settings are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude for the consort alone. (You can hear the poem “The Cross of Snow” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Harbison has a strong sense of tradition and a genuine sympathy for Baroque music. Still, in this composition he by no means attempts simply to imitate long-past styles. While he is interested in exploring the special coloring and harmonics of the viols, he also brings to them a lot of the playing techniques familiar from writing for modern stringed instruments, but alien to viols. Indeed, the instrumental role in this work could pretty easily be transferred from viols to modern strings.

Nevertheless, Harbison’s stylistic assimilations run deep. The five movements, and especially the quite contrapuntal Postlude, are built upon allusions to chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). And, quite wisely, the consort played transcriptions of three such pieces in conjunction with Harbison’s score.

Bach1

Moreover, it was decided to perform Harbison’s new work twice, once in each half of the concert. This was most helpful in allowing a deepened appreciation of the emotional content of both the poetry and the music. The vocal lines are strongly etched, and were beautifully sung by countertenor Medley, a superb artist.

With the final program, on this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the spotlight will be exclusively on Franz Schubert (below) — his “Die Schoene Muellerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) song cycle and the famous “Trout” Piano Quintet — music in a world between the two evoked by this concert.

Schubert etching

For more information, visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org


Classical music: The Ear likes very old Christmas music more than newer music. What do you prefer?

December 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Each year in the Madison area there are so many wonderful concerts with holiday themes performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Choral Project, the Madison Bach Musicians, Edgewood College and by many, many others  that you just can’t get to all of them.

And it doesn’t help if you have a winter cold or aren’t feeling well, as happened this year to The Ear.

But I did get to two memorable performances.

The first was the terrific annual Choral Prism holiday concert (below) put on at Luther Memorial Church by various choirs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. They performed under several conductors, including Beverly Taylor, Bruce Gladstone, Anna Volodarskaya and Sara Guttenberg.

UW Prism 2014 singers 1

UW Prism 2014 crowd

The second was the satisfying “Welcome Yule” concert at Grace Episcopal Church by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir under conductor Robert Gehrenbeck, who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

WCC Welcome Yule 2014

Both events were excellent, and drew full and enthusiastic houses.

A lot of beautiful music in a wide variety of styles was offered by each of the two groups. That included homages to the St. Paul, Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below), who died at 64 this past year and who had close ties to Madison’s vocal groups that commissioned and performed his music. And because programs strive for ethnic diversity today, spirituals and jazz arrangements were also included. (I often cringe when I see something has been “arranged.”)

stephen paulus

But when all was said and done, the “winners” so to speak –- for The Ear at least -– were the old ones. I mean the very old ones, generally those works dating from the Medieval period and Renaissance period over the Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary eras with the Baroque falling somewhere in between.

Why did I like the old music so much?

One reason was the performances. The straight-ahead singing, mostly a cappella or unaccompanied but sometimes with a bit of percussive drum or lyrical harp added, was much more convincing than when I saw modern largely white singers stiffly swaying and awkwardly stomping their feet and clapping the hands to get into the swing of things and show some unconvincing imitation of gospel singing.

But I started thinking.

Maybe it goes back to the Bible and that old verse about “The Word made Flesh.”

That seems a much more successful formula for effective Christmas music than the modern approach, which I am starting to think of as “The Flesh made Word.”

That means that what gets to me is the very simplicity, the strength of the rhythms and melodies as well as the simpler harmonies and compositional techniques.

Simpler is simply better. No better proof was offered that a souped-up jazz arrangement of “Silent Night.” That venerable and quietly emotional carol cannot be improved upon by complicating it. Keep it simple. That seems to be the way to go. Another case of inferior “arranging,” I am afraid.

I think of the old Medieval hymns about a mother simply rocking her baby Jesus to sleep as she sings to him. Can there be anything more touching or poignant, more to the point or direct, especially at a historical period when there was no nighttime lighting and so many babies died.

More than nostalgia, such music offers the art of reducing things to the essential. And the essential, as the old composers seemed to know, is often the path to the universal.

Of course, the plain song or chant-like harmonies also add to the appeal.

But it still goes back to simplicity of the act and the simplicity of the metaphor.

That is why the great 20th-century modern English composer Benjamin Britten (below) used so many older carols in his “Ceremony of Carols” to such great effect.

Benjamin Britten

That is also why 100 times out of 100 I will prefer the simple 16th-century German tune “Lo how a Rose Ere Blooming” (at bottom in a YouTube video) over, say, the long and tedious “Magnificat” No. 20 with its overworked harmonies and complexities for chorus and organ by another 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells (below).

herbert howells autograph

What do you make of the old music versus new music debate when it comes to holiday music?

Do you agree or disagree with The Ear?

And what is your favorite local holiday concert  to recommend for next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra gets a reprieve, thanks to compromise and repertoire adjustments — or so it seems right now. That makes The Ear happy, and should do the same for you. Plus, you can hear BOTH of Mozart’s piano quartets for FREE on Monday night at Oakwood Village West.

May 16, 2014
5 Comments

ALERT: Baroque and modern Madison violinist Kangwon Kim (below), who is a friend of this blog, writes: “I was hoping you could announce my FREE upcoming concert at Oakwood West.  I will be playing both of the glorious Mozart Piano Quartets (in G minor, K. 478, and in E-Flat Major, K. 493) in the “Music on Mondays @7” Series with my colleagues, Matthew Michelic, viola; Stefan Kartman, cello; and Jeannie Yu, piano.

The concert will be held on Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m. in the ARTS auditorium at Oakwood West University Woods, 6205 Mineral Point Road on Madison’s far west side. Both of these quartets are very beautiful and we are very excited to perform them in the same program.” And The Ear adds: The two Mozart piano quartets are very different, and very complementary in mood -– not repetitious and wonderfully listenable. This performance is a great way to hear the differences between major-key and minor-key Mozart in one sitting.

Kangwon Kim

By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about the perfect graduation gift for students at the graduation ceremonies this weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison!

It now seems that it will NOT be either au revoir or adieu for the UW Chamber Orchestra (below), as it first appeared. Conductor James Smith has made some compromises and adjustments that make it sound likely that the UW Chamber Orchestra will continue next season and next academic year without the hiatus of even one semester that seemed to be its certain fate earlier in this semester.

uw chamber orchestra USE

Here is how it all developed, the backstory, according to a previous posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/classical-music-the-uw-chamber-orchestra-will-play-this-sunday-night-but-then-will-be-axed-and-fall-silent-next-season-is-this-au-revoir-or-adieu/

And now comes a reassuring year-end letter to students, faculty and staff from Jim Smith (below), who heads the instrumental conducting program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

Here is the text:

“To the members of the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras:

“I am writing to thank you for the artistry and professionalism you brought to every rehearsal and performance. We made some beautiful and exciting music together, and I am indeed lucky to be your conductor.

“Many members of the orchestra will graduate in a few days, and to each of you I send my very best wishes for a creative and interesting life.

“Next year, there will a bit of a change in the orchestra program. There has been much speculation regarding the potential elimination of the Chamber Orchestra. I am happy to tell you that this is indeed NOT the case.

“There is, however, some uncertainty regarding the number of winds available to fill the positions required for a proper chamber orchestra. So I have elected to program works for strings with the potential of adding keyboards, percussion, faculty soloists, and the solo winds as needed for various works.

“Here are a few of the works under consideration:

“Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” by Bela Bartok (below top)

“Metamorphosen” by Richard Strauss

Apollon Musagete” by Igor Stravinsky (below middle)

 “Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet as arranged by Gustav Mahler below bottom)

Adagio from the Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler

bartok

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

Gustav Mahler big

“I am quite excited about this repertoire, and know we will have wonderful concerts together.

“You can register for Chamber Orchestra if it has been reintroduced into the schedule of classes.  Hopefully, that will be the case. It may be listed Opera Orchestra, a title designed to act as a holding space for whatever substitute for the Chamber Orchestra was necessary to cover the opera production in the first semester.

“Whatever the title of the course, it serves as your organization credit. Difficulties can be sorted out later. The orchestra will meet as usual on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“Again, thank you for everything and have a wonderful summer.

“Sincerely yours,

“James Smith”

If you doubt how welcome this development is, take a listen to the video below. It comes from the outstanding last concert by the UW Chamber Orchestra, which, despite performing for free, deserve a full house every time they play. Some higher profile performing times might help achieve that.

First, they performed a delightful homage to Mozart by French composer Jacques Ibert (below top) and then an homage-like Dance Suite to Baroque French composer Francois Couperin by the late Romantic composer Richard Strauss (below bottom).

Jacques Ibert

richard strauss

Then came a highlight, a genuine masterpiece: the Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below). The ensemble delivered with grace and taste, it also with muscularity.

Mozart old 1782

This was no music box Mozart, but a performance that shows you why Mozart has been so revered by other composers and listeners alike, and demonstrates what a big development Mozart proved in the history of Western classical music. It sure showed how Mozart wrote a lot more than pleasant, easy-listening wallpaper music to accompany brunch or to allow listeners to multi-task.

Here is a You Tube video of the opening of the first movement from that recent performance by the UW Chamber Orchestra:

 

 

 

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