The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: TONIGHT one longtime, generous classical music patron honors another with a FREE public, all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West

October 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as a well-deserved, heart-felt homage that one longtime and generous patron of classical music is paying to another patron who also happened to be a close personal friend and a professional colleague.

The public is invited to join in the one-hour, FREE all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West (University Woods), at 6205 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, at 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Oct. 19.

Here is an invitation from retired University of Wisconsin-Madison chemist Kato Perlman (below) about the concert she is sponsoring and funding in memory of her close friends:

“Join flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top) and pianist Thomas J. Kasdorf (below middle) for a FREE All-Schubert Evening and enjoy the music from one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, Franz Schubert (1797-1828, below bottom).

“This concert is in memory of the late Irving and Millie Shain. Irv Shain (below) was a chemistry professor and then a long-serving Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, and a great supporter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

“He played the flute himself and these Schubert pieces belonged to some of his favorites for the flute.

“He also established, in addition to his long-running annual Beethoven piano sonata competition, a woodwind and piano competition. Both Iva Ugrcic and Thomas Kasdorf are previous winners.”

The program is:

Sonata in A Minor, D. 821 (“Arpeggione”)

Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” (Withered Flowers) from “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), D. 802 (Op. 160)

Ständchen (“Serenade”) from Schubert’s final song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song), D. 957 (heard in the YouTube video below)


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Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra honors retired music critic John W. Barker with a special performance of Brahms and a season dedication

September 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

How does an individual  musician or musical group pay tribute and say thank you to a critic?

By performing, of course.

And that is exactly what 30 members of the Middleton Community Orchestra did, playing under guest conductor Kyle Knox (below top), last Friday night for the veteran music critic John W. Barker (below bottom).

The orchestra performed for him at the downtown Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, near the Capitol Square, where the ailing Barker lives with his wife Margaret.

Because of space limitations, word of the special performance never went public. But the large basement room was packed with affectionate and respectful fans and friends.

The MCO members played the lyrical and sunny Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, of Johannes Brahms. (You can hear the opening movement of the Serenade by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The orchestra also announced that it would dedicate its upcoming 10th anniversary season to Barker as a gesture of thanks for all he has done over the past nine years to promote the mostly amateur orchestra — which opens its new season on Wednesday, Oct. 9. 

“I’ve known this piece most of my life,” said Barker, who soon turns 86 and who started reviewing in his teens. “It’s lots of fun.”

And so was the unusual honor.

“An orchestra paying tribute to a critic? It’s unprecedented,” Barker quipped, as both he and the audience laughed. Barker also quoted the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who once said, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”

After the 40-minute performance, Barker spoke briefly to the players and audience.

“The job of the critic,” he said, “is to stimulate performers to play up to their best standards and to give readers some background and context. Being critical doesn’t mean being negative, although at times I have made some negative comments. But you never have to be nasty. I guess I’ve succeeded,” he said looking around at the players and the public, both of whom generously applauded his remarks.

Barker’s list of personal accomplishments is impressive. He has written local music reviews for The Capital Times, Isthmus and this blog.

But he is a participant as well as a critic. He has sung in many choirs, including 47 years in the one at the local Greek Orthodox Church, and has performed with the Madison Opera. He directed Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Madison Savoyards.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may help to explain his general taste for the traditional. He also is a well-known classical music critic, with a national reputation, who has written for 63 years for the American Record Guide. For many years, he hosted an early music radio show on Sunday mornings for WORT-FM 89.9.

He also worked with Opera Props, the support group for University Opera, and was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival. And he frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison. He has published two books on Wagner and written a definitive history of the Pro Arte Quartet.

But this time even the voluble Barker had to admit, “I am grateful and thankful. I am very moved, even floored. But I’m afraid I’m finally at a loss for words.”

You can leave your own words of tribute in the Comment section.

To see the full “Barker season” schedule for the Middleton Community Orchestra and to read many of Barker’s past reviews of the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Thank you, John, for all you have done to enrich the cultural and musical life of Madison!


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Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


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Classical music: Concerts on the Square begin this Wednesday night – and half of the six concerts feature classical music

June 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 36th annual FREE summer series of six Concerts on the Square, performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and guest soloists, will begin this Wednesday night, June 26, at 7 p.m. on the King Street Corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Each concert draws an average of 30,000 people.

But if you think it is largely a pops concert event, think again.

One of the many outstanding achievements that WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) has brought to the event – billed as “the Biggest Picnic of Summer” — over the past 20 years is an increased emphasis on classical music, perhaps to help build new audiences for the WCO’s winter Masterworks concerts.

The opening concert, for example, has become a tradition, a chance to introduce to the public the latest winner of the WCO’s young people’s concerto competition – and this year is no different.

Three of the six concerts will be also all-classical – and that’s not counting Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” that will be featured on the Fourth of July program on July 3.

There will also be pops music of course, including a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ iconic album “Abbey Road”; patriotic fare for Independence Day; and an evening of movie scores, most composed by John Williams, with concertmaster Suzanne Beia as violin soloist in the theme from “Schindler’s List.”

All concerts are on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 28 through July 31. Performances begin at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. They usually last about two hours.

To find out more, including the programs and biographies of performers for each program, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Once there, if you click on a specific date, on the right hand side you will also find information about concert etiquette, seating on the Capitol lawn, weather cancellations, catering menus, food vendor sales and other information, including details about volunteering and donating. Here is a link to general guidelines:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/attending-the-concert/ 

Here are the three classical concerts:

JUNE 26

“East Meets West” features the WCO’s concerto competition winner pianist Sakurako Eriksen (below) – a Madison native now living in Milwaukee — in the popular and virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev.

Also on the program are “Francesca da Rimini” by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes” by French composer by Maurice Ravel; and an unnamed work by Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.

JULY 10

“Finlandia” features the Russian-born and Moscow Conservatory-trained accordion virtuoso Sergei Belkin (below).

On the program are unnamed works by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and Alexander Glazunov; “Oblivion” by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla; the “Sabre Dance” by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian; and “Finlandia” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

JULY 31

“Rockin’ Rachmaninov” features Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), a frequent WCO guest artist who teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.

The program includes the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninov; the Overture to the opera “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the 1944 “Cornish Rhapsody” piano concerto score, composed by English composer Hubert Bath for the World War II film “Love Story”; and a Suite from “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky.


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Classical music: Sonata à Quattro does justice to the spiritual piety and beautiful music in Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ”

April 28, 2019
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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

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s newest ensemble is called Sonata à Quattro (below), using the Italian Baroque expression for instrumental works scored for three upper parts and basso continuo. That idiom was the background to the more integrated balance of the string quartet.

It was Franz Joseph Haydn (below) who really consolidated that transformation, and so it was appropriate that the new group should at this early point in its development pay a major tribute to that composer.

Responding to a commission from a Spanish prelate, in 1786-87 Haydn composed a set of seven orchestral adagios  — plus opening and closing pieces — to be played in a Good Friday ceremony celebrating the seven final statements by Christ from the cross (below, in a painting by Diego Velazquez) that are cumulatively reported by the Gospel writers.

At the same time, Haydn made a reduction of those orchestral movements into the string quartet format. That version he published outside his regular sets of string quartets, which had opus numbers.

Especially in the quartet form, this music achieved wide circulation, so much so that several attempts were made by others to create an oratorio out of this music, prompting Haydn himself to make his own oratorio version in 1795-96. Along the way, someone else made a keyboard transcription of the music that Haydn sanctioned.

It was, of course, the string quartet version — The Seven Last Words of Christ — that the Sonata à Quattro performed. It did so, first as part of a Good Friday church service in Milwaukee on April 19, and then as an independent one-hour free and public concert at the Oakwood Village West auditorium last Thursday night.

Fischer Hoyt (below), the group’s founder and violist, gave an introductory talk about the group’s name and about its decisions as to instrumentation.  (It usually plays on period instruments, but chose this time to use modern ones with period bows.) Cellist Charlie Rasmussen added some comments about the music and its history. Violinists  Kangwon Kim and Nathan Giglierano were happy just to play.

Haydn’s music was written in the deepest piety and sincerity, and that comes through in the individual components, which cost him much effort. (You can hear the second half of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The seven Sonatas are framed by a solemn Introduction and a furious evocation of the “earthquake” that we are told followed the death of Jesus. Each successive Sonata is cast in very tight and concentrated sonata form. Haydn makes the Latin form of each statement or “word” the theme of each sonata. In all, the cycle makes the most deeply absorbing combination of spirituality and ingenuity.

The players brought out both those dimensions in a performance of rapt beauty. This score has quite a few recordings, but it is not heard in concert all that often, so it was a treasure to be given this wonderful presentation.

And now we know that Sonata à Quattro has great possibilities to develop.


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Classical music: This Saturday night, the Leonard Bernstein centennial will be marked at the UW-Madison with a faculty vocal concert and a sing-along

September 12, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about this weekend’s celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth:

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, below in a photo by Jack Mitchell) — the legendary composer, conductor and pianist — will be celebrated in a concert of his music on this coming Saturday night, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Tickets are $17 for adults; $7 for students and children; and free to music majors, music faculty and music staff. To avoid long lines  you are asked to purchase tickets early. If you do purchase tickets at the door, you are asked to arrive 30 minutes before the concert begins. For details about tickets, see below.

This Faculty Concert Series event is one of the many world-wide observances of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. They will include a special program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its music director and conductor John DeMain, who worked with Bernstein and who discussed Bernstein on Wisconsin Public Radio, which you can hear here:

https://www.wpr.org/madison-symphonys-john-demain-remembers-bernstein-during-centennial-birth-year

From Broadway to the concert stage, Bernstein embodied the eclectic nature of America’s music. As a composer, conductor and teacher he embraced all kinds of music, and in his own work created enduring masterpieces in both popular and classical styles.

Saturday’s concert will feature a number of lesser-known works that come from all periods of Bernstein’s career, as well as favorite selections from his classic Broadway scores On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide and West Side Story, and songs from his exquisite incidental music for Peter Pan.

Cellist Alison Rowe (below top) will join her parents, baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) in selections from Mass, Songfest and the beautiful song Dream With Me (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom).

Pianists Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes (below) will join the Rowes in a performance of one of Bernstein’s last major works for two singers and two pianists, Arias and Barcarolles. It is a song cycle in which “Lenny” fully explored the range of styles and subject matter that represent his unique achievement in American music.

There will be a short SING-ALONG at the end of the concert featuring some favorite and familiar Bernstein hits.

For more information, including how to obtain tickets, a video and a link to a Bernstein tribute in The New York Times, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/music-of-leonard-bernstein-a-100th-birthday-tribute/


Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 Comments

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


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Classical music: The Madison Summer Choir celebrates its 10th anniversary with one of the best concerts of the year

July 20, 2018
3 Comments

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Summer Choir (below) celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday night at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Each year’s program has had a theme, and for this one it was “Old Wine in New Bottles”— though it might as well have been the other way ‘round.

The idea, though, was that the selections showed their composers looking back to the techniques and tastes of earlier generations while writing new music. Conductor Ben Luedcke (below) introduced each work to explain how such approaches worked out.

The first half of the program was devoted to four works, dating from three different centuries.

Two were by contemporary composers. A setting in English of the Psalm text “By the Waters of Babylon” by Sarah Riskind (below top) was followed by Amor de mi Ami, a tribute to his wife, in Spanish, by Randall Stroope (below bottom).

Each work had instrumental additions — in the first, piano with cello, in the second, just piano) which personally I found unnecessary. Riskind’s choral writing is attractively full and quite idiomatic, while Stroope achieves a natural lyricism. I would be interested to hear just the choral parts alone for each work. (Editor’s Note: You can hear the work by Randall Stroope in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

These two items were framed by music of earlier epochs. The Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) by Johannes Brahms showed his ability to create his own version of both pre- and post-Baroque polyphony. And Mozart’s Psalm setting Laudate pueri, from one of his Vespers collections (K. 339), showed his assimilation of Baroque counterpoint.

Bruce Bengtson played the part Brahms included for organ (or piano), and he also played the organ reduction of the orchestral part for the Mozart.

It was partly the acoustics, but also a weakness in diction that made the words in those four pieces all but indistinguishable, in whatever language was being sung—my one serious criticism of the performances.

The second part of the program was devoted to the first of the numbered Mass settings by Anton Bruckner. In some ways, such large-scale sacred works were studies for his majestic symphonies yet to come.

In this Mass No. 1 in D minor, Bruckner saw himself in the line of earlier Austrian church music, but anyone expecting bald imitations of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven would be disappointed.

In his dense and highly chromatic writing — something like a step beyond Schubert — Bruckner created some very fascinating music. It reached really exciting power in the Credo, and the words “dona nobis pacem” at the conclusion had a deeply moving sense of serenity.

The choir, of 68 mixed voices, was joined for the Bruckner by four soloists — Chelsie Propst, Jessica Lee Timman, Peter Gruett, Christian Bester (below on the left) — who sang their parts handsomely, and by an orchestra of 30 players, who provided strong and sturdy support.

Luedcke deserves particular praise for giving a chance to hear the Bruckner Mass, which was thought to be its Madison premiere. It climaxed a really enterprising event, one that I think will stand as among the Best Concerts of the Year.


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