The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Musical America offers an exhaustive and helpful guide to international FREE streaming of operas, concerts and recitals, complete with program notes and links for listening

April 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the COVID-19 pandemic, so much music is being streamed – through both live streaming and delayed pre-recorded streaming – that it can be hard to keep track of it all.

After all, the events are taking place locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

How do you know what operas, orchestral concerts, chamber music concerts and individual recitals will take place? Where and when they will take place? What time is it in your time zone? And where do you find links to the performances, such as those by the famed Berlin Philharmonic (below)?

Getting so much information can be daunting.

But one loyal reader has helped The Ear by sending word about the most exhaustive compilation or online guide to FREE streaming of classical music events he has seen so far.

It is done by Musical America, and The Ear highly recommends it. 

The Musical America website advises users that the guide will be updated twice weekly, and that Central European Time (CET) is six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time (EDT) — or seven hours ahead of Central Daylight Time (CDT).

It also tells you how long many of the streamed videos are available for. A full 23 or 24 hours after the initial airing seems pretty average. But many appealing events – by some of the most prestigious organizations and individual performers in the world — will be available for the entire duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

You also get concise notes about the performers and the programs.

Today and tonight, for example, you could take in productions by the Berlin State Opera, the Zurich Opera and Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera (below) and the Vienna State Opera.

You could also take in the historical performances from the ongoing Cliburn Watch Party from the Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the twice weekly concerts by the six musically talented children in the acclaimed Kanneh-Mason family in England, now dubbed “The Von Trapp’s of classical music.” (Below is cellist brother Sheku Kanneh-Mason performing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.)

And you could listen to award-winning cellist Alisa Weilerstein (below) will also discuss and play all 36 movements of the six solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach that she recently recorded and just released.

The guide lists some of the more outstanding paid websites such as Medici TV but also lists events that took place much earlier but are still available for free watching and listening.

The guide has a link so that organizations can submit their own events for listing or users can make suggestions.

In short, the Musical America guide is extremely useful. You should probably bookmark it if you are planning to listen to a lot of musical events online through streaming.

But don’t take The Ear’s word for it. Take a look and check it out for yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm?storyid=44766&categoryid=1&archived=0

What do you think of it?

Do you find it useful and think you will?

Do you see any major shortcomings or overlooked events?

Recommendations of your own?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: This Saturday night brings both the Escher String Quartet to the Wisconsin Union Theater and the UW-Madison Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra to the Hamel Music Center

January 22, 2020
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CORRECTION: The Ear received the following correction to the story he posted yesterday about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and apologizes for the error:

 “There was a change to our rollout in Brookfield. We are only repeating the fifth Masterworks concert on Saturday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We are NOT repeating this Friday’s concert in Brookfield.

“We will perform a Family Series concert of “Beethoven Lives Next Door” on Sunday, March 29, at 3 p.m. at the same Brookfield venue.”

By Jacob Stockinger

The upcoming weekend is a busy one for classical music.

The busiest night is Saturday night when two major concerts will take place: a performance by the Escher String Quartet and the postponed concert by the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra with soloists.

Here are details:

ESCHER STRING QUARTET and DAVID FINCKEL

The concert by the Escher String Quartet (below) with cellist David Finckel (below bottom. formerly of the critically acclaimed Emerson String Quartet) takes place on this Saturday night, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater.


The performance is part of the special season celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Concert Series.

The program includes the sublime Quintet in C Major, D. 956, with two cellos, by Franz Schubert and the String Quartet in A minor by the great early 20th-century Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (below).

Tickets are $30-$50. For more information and to reserve tickets, go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=CFC3765F-5F1D-4663-BCA0-985BE3049CF5

For more information about the Escher String Quartet, including a video performance and detailed background, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/escher-string-quartet-with-david-finckel/

UW CHORAL UNION

Also on this Saturday night at 8 p.m., in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW Choral Union  and UW Symphony Orchestra (below top), along with two vocal soloists – soprano Chelsie Propst (below middle) and baritone James Harrington (below bottom) — will perform a concert originally scheduled for Dec. 7 and then postponed.

The program, without intermission, is one 80-minute work: the epic and influential “A Sea Symphony” by the great 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (below).

General admission tickets are $18 for the general public and faculty or staff; and $10 for UW students. To reserve tickets, go to Campus Arts Ticketing at: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=412623A4-4FB9-40D6-BC23-A425360713EA

Beverly Taylor (below), the longtime director of choral activities at the UW who will retire this spring, sent the following note:

“The text by American poet Walt Whitman presents four symphonic scenes of great breadth and imagination, with lush harmonies and constantly varying tempos and dynamics.” (You can hear the Waves section, or third movement, from “A Sea Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

 


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Classical music: The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge sings a varied program with organ accompaniment this Wednesday night in Overture Hall

September 9, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The new season of the popular Overture Concert Organ series, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and curated by MSO organist Greg Zelek, begins this Wednesday night, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

All single tickets are $20. (A subscription to all four organ concerts is $63.)

The opening program features the world-famous Choir of Trinity College Cambridge (below), on tour from its home in the United Kingdom.

Adds Zelek:

“Our season opens with the amazing Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, named by Gramophone Magazine as one of the best choirs in the world.

“Conducted by the choir’s music director Stephen Layton (below top) and accompanied on the mighty Klais concert organ (below bottom), this 25-voice choir will present a program of music spanning many centuries that will display its beauty of tone and depth of feeling. These rich voices will make this varied program soar through Overture Hall and leave everyone in the audience breathless.”


Here are some sample reviews:

Virtuoso is the right word. I, for one, can’t immediately think of any more appropriate way of describing singing of such staggering accomplishment.  – BBC Music Magazine

Sitting front and center at a recent Trinity Choir of Cambridge concert at Grace Cathedral was, sonically speaking, a heavenly experience.                    -The New York Times

Here is Wednesday night’s eclectic program:

William Byrd | Sing joyfully
William Byrd | O Lord, make thy servant, Elizabeth
Thomas Tallis | Salvator mundi
Henry Purcell | Thou knowest, Lord
Arvo Part | Bogoroditse Djévo
John Tavener | Mother of God, here I stand
Vasily Kalinnikov | Bogoroditse Djevo
Robert Parsons | Ave Maria
Eriks Esenvalds | The Heavens’ Flock (You can hear a different Esenvalds work, “Only in Sleep,” sung by the Trinity College Choir, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Morten Lauridsen | O magnum mysterium
Jaakko Mantyjarvi | Stuttgarter Psalmen
Herbert Howells | Take him, earth, for cherishing
Herbert Howells | Trinity St. Paul’s

For more information about the Overture Organ Series, detailed background about the Trinity College Choir and how to purchase tickets, call (608) 258-4141 or go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/overture-concert-organ-performances/ or https://madisonsymphony.org/event/organ-trinity-choir/ 


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings an early opera and an all-Bernstein brass and winds program plus orchestral and choral concerts that will be LIVE-STREAMED

November 14, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

A busy week brings an early opera plus orchestral and choral concerts with live streaming to the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are details:

On Thursday and Saturday nights, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will LIVE STREAM concerts by the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Concert Choir.

“We plan to do more live streaming of ensemble groups,  especially large ones, and of non-ticketed events,” says concert manager Katherine Esposito. “It is more and more becoming the norm for music schools.”

Here is the all-purpose Live Streaming link where you can see what events will be live-streamed: https://www.music.wisc.edu/video/

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Nov. 15, in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top) will perform a FREE concert under director Chad Hutchinson (below bottom).

The program is American composer Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” and the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

For information about the program and the concert, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-2/

On Saturday night, Nov. 17,  at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Concert Choir (below) will perform a FREE concert featuring the “Hymn to St. Cecilia” by British composer Benjamin Britten and “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah” by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera as well as works by several other composers.

Conductors will be Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, and graduate student Michael Johnson.

For details about the program and individual performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-2/

On Friday night, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall there is the first of three performances by the University Opera of Italian baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” directed by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

Other performances are on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18,  at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night, Nov. 20, at 7:30 in Music Hall. (Sorry, no photos of the UW production. But you can hear a famous duet from another professional production in the YouTube video below.)

Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Chad Hutchinson will conduct the orchestra.

For more information about the plot of the opera, comments by the two singers playing Emperor Nero, the production and tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

And here is a link to a press release about the opera: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/10/09/university-opera-poppea2018/

On Sunday night, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Brass Ensemble and the Winds of Wisconsin join forces under conductor Scott Teeple for an FREE all-Leonard Bernstein (below) program. For details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-and-winds-of-wisconsin-joint-concert/


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS — the slow movement of the Violin Concerto by Gerald Finzi

August 7, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has long had a fondness for the works of the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

His work may be relatively tweedy and conservative, but it is unmistakably modern. It is very poignant and appealing, with accessible harmonies and beautiful melodies. He seems much like a British Samuel Barber.

Ever since he first heard it maybe 20 years ago, The Ear has loved Finzi’s pastoral Eclogue for Piano and String Orchestra, which was meant to be the slow movement of a piano concerto but ended up being an independent work. And, judging by how increasingly  often it gets played on Wisconsin Public Radio, the Eclogue seems to be a favorite among a growing number of fans.

But there are other works.

There is the Romance for Violin and Small Orchestra.

There is the Romance for String Orchestra.

There is the Concerto for Cello.

There is his Romance for Clarinet and String Orchestra as well as the Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra.

And now The Ear has discovered the slow movement — appropriately marked “very serene” — of the Violin Concerto by Finzi, which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It is performed by British violinist Tasmin Little (below, in a photo by Melanie Winning), who four seasons years ago turned in wonderful performances in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell. She played Finzi’s rarely heard “Introit.”

If you want to hear the whole concerto, it is available for free on YouTube from a couple of different performers. And you can find many other works by Finzi on YouTube.

In any case, The Ear hopes the Violin Concerto gets programmed at a local concert.

This past summer, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society featured a song cycle by Finzi. Even so, we need to hear more music by Gerald Finzi in live performances.

Finzi was a modest and retiring man, publicity shy and not given to self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, who went underperformed and underappreciated during his lifetime. But he is an extremely welcoming and moving modern composer.

The Ear thinks he deserves a better place among other modern British composers who have become more popular, including Ralph Vaughan Williams (shown, below right, with Finzi), Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, William Walton and others.

Are there other Gerald Finizi fans out there?

What do you think about him?

And what is your favorite work by Gerald Finzi?

The Ear wants to hear.


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