The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians, with dancers and guest vocal soloists, will perform a tragic Purcell opera and comic Bach cantata this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

April 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger’

This coming weekend the Madison Bach Musicians — an acclaimed local group devoted to period instruments and historically informed performance practices — will present a double bill that features the tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” by British composer Henry Purcell (below top) and the comic “Coffee” Cantata, BWV 211, by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom).

Both performances take place in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On Saturday, April 7, there is a 6:45 p.m.  lecture by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance.

On Sunday, April 8, there is a 2:45 p.m.  lecture by Trevor Stephenson followed by a 3:30 p.m. performance.

Purcell’s vivid and eloquent operatic masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas is based on the tragic love story told in Book IV of Virgil’s epic Latin poem “Aeneid”and is depicted in the 1815 painting (below) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

The performance of the Baroque opera uses a full baroque orchestra.

In addition there are three guest singers as soloists: Chelsea Shepherd (below top) as Dido; Elijah Blaisdell (below middle) as Aeneas; and Nola Richardson (below bottom) as Belinda.

Adding to the production are dance sequences, all coming together thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top in a photo by Luke Delalio) of the University Opera; Karen McShane-Hellenbrand (below middle) of the UW-Madison Dance Department; and Baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below bottom in a photo by James Gill).

J. S. Bach’s witty Coffee Cantata will add some mischievous fun to the program.

This work suggests that perhaps Johann Sebastian himself was a coffee enthusiast at a time when coffee was sweeping the Continent and often seen as a sinful new fad.  “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee….” sings Lieschen in an aria that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Bach even premiered and performed many of his works at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, which he frequented and which is depicted below in an 18th-century engraving by Georg Schreiber.

As usual, MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below) will offer his insightful and entertaining commentary on these two diverse masterworks in his lecture preceding each concert.

Tickets are $38, $35 for seniors and $10 for student rush tickets at the door if the concert is not sold out.

Advance tickets are available at the Willy Street Coops East and West. More information about the production and tickets can be found at madisonbachmusicians.org

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Classical music: Who should be Musician of the Year for 2017 and why?

December 9, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

At the end of each year for the past nine years, The Ear has named a Musician of the Year.

It can be an individual, a small group or a large ensemble. But it must be a local music-maker, not just a presenter.

In past years, The Ear named the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra; the long-lived and thoroughly professional Pro Arte Quartet; the recently formed and always impressive Willy Street Chamber Players (below); and the veteran and always reliable summer chamber music group, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

He has also named retired UW-Madison professor and conductor James Smith; Madison Bach Musicians founder and director Trevor Stephenson; Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad); and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer.

If you want to check out those postings, you can use the blog page.

Just enter Musician of the Year in the search engine. Or go to the calendar and look it up by the date it appears, which is usually Dec. 30 or 31.

To be honest The Ear already has a nominee in mind for this year.

But it is not set in stone and definite yet. And he thought it would be informative and entertaining to open up the process and ask readers for their suggestions.

So if you have a name to nominate for Musician of the Year for 2017, please use the COMMENT section to leave the name of the recipient you propose and why they deserve the honor.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform their seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert of Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli this Saturday night

December 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will perform their seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in a 2014 photo by Kent Sweitzer) this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, across from Camp Randall stadium.

The concert will be preceded at 7:15 p.m. by a lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below), who will talk about period instruments, the pieces and composers on the program, and historically informed performance practices.

The seasonal program features works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim (below top) and baritone Joshua Copland (below bottom) will sing the solo parts in a cantata by Bach.

They will be joined by UW-Madison oboist Aaron Hill (below bottom) and a baroque string ensemble in Bach’s lyrical masterpiece Cantata BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desiring). A aria and a song by Bach will also be performed.

Also on the program is the rarely performed but electrifying chamber cantata or motet “In Furore iustissimae irae,” RV 626, by Vivaldi. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert will open with the Concerto Grosso in F Major, Op. 6, No. 12, by Arcangelo Corelli.

The concert will conclude with MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim as the featured violin soloist in the Winter section from Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons.

Advance-sale discount tickets are $30 for general admission and are available at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy Street Co-op (East and West).

Advance sale online tickets: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33 for the general public, $30 for seniors (65+). Student Rush tickets for $10 go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture at 6:45 p.m.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


Classical music: On Saturday “The MET Live in HD” will feature Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” Also, UW trombonist Mark Hetzler’s concert is TONIGHT (NOT Saturday) as is a concert of Mozart’s music for piano-four hands

October 13, 2017
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CORRECTION: The Stravinsky concert by UW trombone professor Mark Hetzler and friends is TONIGHT at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall – NOT Saturday night as incorrectly listed in the posting yesterday. For more information about the performers and the program, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/classical-music-uw-trombonist-mark-hetzler-explores-stravinsky-with-alumni-musicians-in-a-free-concert-on-saturday-night-plus-you-can-hear-free-brahms-at-noon-this-friday/

ALERT: The Ear received the following word from early music specialist Trevor Stephenson: “Tonight, my distinguished colleague from France, Marcia Hadjimarkos, will join me for a program of Mozart’s thrilling music for piano four-hands.

“The concert will be held at the Madison Christian Community church, 7118 Old Sauk Road. The acoustics there for the fortepiano are really wonderful. Tickets are available at the door. They cost $20 for the general public and $10 for students.”

By Jacob Stockinger

The broadcasts of “The Met Live in HD” don’t usually fall in consecutive weeks.

But this weekend is an exception.

Last Saturday and then again on Wednesday, the current season premiered with a critically acclaimed  production of Bellini’s “Norma.”

This Saturday, a new production of the ever-popular “The Magic Flute” by Mozart will be featured.

The three-hour show starts at 11:55 a.m. on Saturday at the Marcus Point Cinema on the far west side of Madison and the Marcus Palace Cinema in Sun Prairie.

Encore performances at both movie theaters are this coming Wednesday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

The full-length opera will be sung in German with English surtitles.

Tickets are $22 for the public, and $18 for seniors.

The production promises to be special for two reasons: the elaborate, colorful staging and innovative costumes by director Julie Taymor, famous for her oversized puppet-like costumes in “The Lion King”; and vibrant conducting by longtime Metropolitan Opera artistic director and now emeritus conductor James Levine. (You can hear the upbeat Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Below are some other photos to give you a taste of the production:

Here is a link for notes about the production, including several videos:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2017-18-Season/zauberflote-mozart-tickets/

And here is a link to a synopsis and notes about the cast:

http://www.metopera.org/metoperafiles/season/2017-18/operas/zauberflote/hd_syn_Zauberflote_global_and_usa_dates.pdf


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

September 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform “imitative” works by Bach and Vivaldi this coming Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

September 19, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In an original program that is organized much like the music it features, the early music group Madison Bach Musicians (below) will open their new season this weekend with a concert that offers a counterpoint of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi — all done with period instrument and historically informed performance practices.

The two concerts are:

This coming Saturday night, Sept. 23, with a 6:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture by MBM founder, artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), and a 7:30 p.m. concert at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive in Madison.

This coming Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, with 2:45 p.m. pre-concert lecture and a 3:30 p.m. concert at Holy Wisdom Monastery, 4200 County Road M, in Middleton.

The guest soloist is Steuart Pincombe (below, in a photo by Ryan West), who plays the baroque cello. He will join the Madison Bach Musicians for this innovative concert – an dual exploration of fugues and imitation from the German Bach and the Italian Vivaldi — two masters of the Baroque.

The concert itself is structured much like a fugue. Starting from a single voice, selections alternate between pieces by Vivaldi (below top) and by Bach (below bottom) ―with each new section of the concert requiring an additional performer. (Sorry, no word on specific works except for the finale.)

The program culminates with the entire ensemble performing Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto Grosso alongside a string arrangement of Bach’s own transcription of the same piece. (You can hear the original by Vivaldi in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Advance-sale discount tickets cost $30 for general admission and at available at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Co-op, East and West.

Advance sale online tickets can be found at: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33 for the general public, and $30 for seniors 65-plus with Student Rush tickets costing $10 and going on sale 30 minutes before the pre-concert lecture.


Classical music: Performances by this year’s seven Handel Aria Competition finalists are now on YouTube

July 6, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Even if they change your opinion about who should have won what prize in this year’s fifth annual Handel Aria Competition, it’s too late.

That’s the thing about a competition: No second-guessing and no second chances — at least not this year.

But it’s not too late to enjoy the competition all over again

This past week, 14 performances by all seven finalists, who did two each, were posted on YouTube.

Here is the official announcement:

“The Handel Aria Competition is pleased to announce that first prize in the 5th annual competition, held on June 9 in Madison, Wisconsin, went to mezzo-soprano Nian Wang. Wang performed two fiery Handel arias, “Where Shall I Fly?” from Hercules and “Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi” from Serse (Xerxes).

Wang (below in a photo by Mary Gordon) is a New York-based mezzo-soprano originally from Nanjing, China. She graduated from the opera program at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in 2014 was selected as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow.

“Along with Wang, tenor Gene Stenger (below left, in a photo by David Peterson) won second prize and the audience favorite award, while mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below right) took third prize in the competition.

“Seven finalists (below), selected from a field of more than 100 singers, each sang two arias accompanied by the Madison Bach Musicians under the direction of Trevor Stephenson.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (top to bottom, left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen, Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe, Craig Trompeter and Alessandra Visconti served as the professional judges for this year’s competition.

Every finalist received some votes for the hotly contested audience favorite prize.

The Handel Aria Competition was established in 2013 to encourage emerging singers to explore the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel. It is held annually in Mills Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

The competition, founded by Carol “Orange” and Dean Schroeder (below), was inspired by Mr. Schroeder’s passion for Handel’s operatic works.

Please note:  The arias by all seven finalists can now be seen on our YouTube channel. (As an example, winner Nina Wang‘s two arias are at the bottom.)

Bios of the winners and the other four finalists are on our web site.”


Classical music: Here are the winners of the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 17, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This posting should have appeared earlier, but The Ear regrets that other news, reviews and previews preempted it and apologizes for the tardiness.

In any case, in case you haven’t already heard, the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition took place a week ago Friday night, and was well attended.

The seven finalists were chosen from an international field of 107 applicants. For the third year in a row, they were accompanied by harpsichordist Trevor Stephenson, who conducted the Madison Bach Musicians.

In five years, the competition has certainly blossomed into a respected global event, and it shows all the signs of continuing to grow. The Ear is unaware of other competitions devoted to the prolific vocal music of George Frideric Handel, who is so often overshadowed by his Baroque contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach.

First prize went to mezzo-soprano Nian Wang (below center in the photo by David Peterson) from Nanjing, China; second prize and audience favorite to tenor Gene Stenger (below left) from New Haven, Connecticut; and third prize to mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski (below right) from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

The competition judges for this year were Paul Rowe, Craig Trompeter and Alessandra Visconti.

You can’t yet find an audio video clip of Wang’s performances on YouTube. But contestants from previous years are there, and no doubt soon there will be a YouTube video of Wang singing.

Here are more photos of Nian Wang performing and receiving the first prize flanked by other contestants and the founders of the competition, Orange and Dean Schroeder:

For more information about the winners, identities and biographies of the seven finalists (below), and the competition itself – including previous years and winners — go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

and

https://handelariacompetition.com/2017-handelariacompetition-finalists/


Classical music: The fifth annual Handel Aria Competition is this Friday night – and the event has grown into a major event with broad cross-cultural appeal

June 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In a short time, it has become one of the year’s MUST-HEAR local events for fans of Baroque music, fine singing, and the music of composer George Frideric Handel.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the fifth annual Handel Aria Competition will take place.

Handel Aria Competition tickets are $15 for general admission, and will be available at the door.

For the third year, the Madison Bach Musicians, led by the keyboardist founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson, will accompany the seven finalists who were selected from over 100 applicants from China, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and 26 states including Hawaii.

Finalists in the 2017 Handel Aria Competition are pictured below (left to right): Gene Stenger, Clara Osowski, Nicole Heinen (who studied at the UW-Madison), Brian Giebler, Nian Wang, Andrew Rader and Johanna Bronk.

In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, there will be a cash prize for Audience Favorite.

The Handel Aria Competition is an annual event held in Madison, Wisconsin to promote the performance of Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

Once connected to the Madison Early Music Festival in July, it has evolved into a separate event due to logistics and staffing.

Founders Dean and Orange Schroeder (below) are enthusiasts of George Frideric Handel’s music and lifelong supporters of the arts.

They write:

“In the spring of 2013, we started the Handel Aria Competition with no real experience, using only the Handel Singing Competition in London – the world’s only, at that time – as a model. We were inspired by the recent groundswell of interest in Handel’s operas and oratorios, most of which have been rarely performed for some 300 years!”

Since then, the competition has grown from 50 to 105 applicants and features orchestral accompaniment as well as large, enthusiastic and often partisan audiences.

You can follow the competition, with news and background stories on the Facebook page for the Handel Aria Competition at https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=handel%20aria%20competition

For more information, including extensive biographies of the finalists and the results of past competitions as well as advice about how to apply for the competition and how to support it, go to the website HandelAriaCompetition.com

Countertenor Eric Jurenas, winner of the 2016 competition, can be heard in the YouTube video below:


Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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