The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Veterans Day is a good time to hear Bach’s musical prayer for peace

November 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Nov. 11, 2019 – is Veterans Day.

There is a lot of classical music that can be used to honor the holiday and the men and women who serve in the military.

This is not the day to remember the dead. That is Memorial Day.

So it is worth recalling that Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day in 1918 when World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Here is a link to more about the holiday found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veterans_Day

One could celebrate by using brass bands and other military ensembles playing patriotic music and marches.

But there seems to be too much conflict in the world, and the dream of ending war and armed conflict seems as distant as ever, given certain political trends and unfortunately regressive and destructive forces at work right now.

Instead, The Ear wants to honor what should be the deeper purpose of the military: To secure peace.

For that reason, here is a YouTube video of a  memorable performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace), the ending prayer from the Mass in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The four-minute work is performed more slowly than usual, but also more movingly and soulfully, by the famed Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, all under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.

Do you agree that it is a wish that honors the true purpose of the military?

If you know of other appropriate music to mark the holiday, please leave the title of the work and the names of the composer and the performers along with, if possible, a YouTube link.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Today at noon you can hear Japanese marimba music. At the UW-Madison, tonight offers a FREE concert of Eastern European music by the Wingra Wind Quintet. Tomorrow night is a FREE concert of vocal music by UW Chorale

November 8, 2019
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ALERT: TODAY, Nov. 8, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the veteran international marimbist Rebecca Kite (below) — who teaches and concertizes — will perform a program that features music of Handel, herself and contemporary Japanese composers including Keiko Abe and Minoru Miki. Kite recently moved to Madison.

By Jacob Stockinger

Tonight and tomorrow night feature two noteworthy and FREE concerts of chamber music for winds and choral music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are details:

WINGRA WIND QUINTET

TONIGHT, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., the UW-Madison’s Wingra Wind Quintet  performs a FREE concert of music from Eastern Europe.

Works by Bela Bartok, Leos Janacek, Gyorgy Kurtag and Endre Szervanszky will be featured.

The guest artist is clarinetist Brian Gnojek (below).

For more information about the concert, the works on the program and background of the Wingra Wind Quintet (below, in 2018, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) as an acclaimed faculty chamber music ensemble, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wingra-wind-quintet-2/2019-11-08/

UW CHORALE

This Saturday night, Nov. 9, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the Hamel Music Center, the UW Chorale (below) will perform a FREE concert with an eclectic theme.

The program is called “How to Spice Up Your Life.” Selections include works about music, dance, chat, sports, love, outings and cooking.

The concert includes a performance of PDQ Bach’s The Seasonings, a parody of baroque oratorios, featuring faculty soloists Julia Rottmayer and Paul Rowe with student soloists Angela Peterson and Charles Hancin. (You can hear Part I of “The Seasonings” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more information, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-chorale-3/

 


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Classical music: The gala opening this weekend of the UW-Madison’s new Hamel Music Center is SOLD OUT. What do you think of the building, the music and the event? Plus, veteran music critic John W. Barker has died

October 25, 2019
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ALERT: Word arrived late last night that the respected longtime music critic John W. Barker, a retired UW-Madison professor of medieval history, died Thursday morning. He wrote locally for Isthmus, The Capital Times and this blog. Details will be shared when they are known. 

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, Oct. 25-27, marks the official gala opening of the new Hamel Music Center (below, in a photo by Bryce Richter for University Communications) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music. It is located at 740 University Ave., next to the new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit relating to the new music center.

The impressive $58-million structure, which has taken many years to fund  (completely privately) and then to build, will celebrate its opening tonight, Saturday night (while the 14th annual Halloween FreakFest on State Street is happening) and Sunday afternoon.

The performers will include distinguished alumni, faculty members and students.

Here is a link to an overall schedule as published on the School of Music’s home website: https://www.music.wisc.edu/hamel-music-center-opening-schedule/

Thanks to an astute reader who found what The Ear couldn’t find, here is a complete schedule — long, varied and impressive — of works and performers: https://www.music.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/20191025-Hamel-Music-Center-Opening-Weekend.pdf

And here is a link to the official UW-Madison press release with more background and details about the building: https://news.wisc.edu/mead-witter-school-of-musics-hamel-music-center-opening-this-fall/

UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger (below) has been commissioned to write a Fanfare that will receive its world premiere tonight.

The opening promises to be a success, complete with receptions at the end of each performance.

In fact, the public has signed on enough that the FREE tickets to all events are SOLD OUT, according to the School of Music’s home website.

Taste is personal and varies, and The Ear has heard mixed reviews of the new building. (For the special occasion, you can hear “The Consecration of the House” Overture by Beethoven, performed by the La Scala opera house orchestra in Milan under Riccardo Muti, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Basically, people seem to agree that the acoustics are much improved over Mills Hall and Morphy Recital Hall in the old Humanities Building.

But public opinion seems more divided over other aspects, from the overall external architecture and interior design to the smaller size of the big hall, the seats and seating layout, and the restrooms.

So if you go – or have already gone – let the rest of us know what you think about those various aspects of the new building and about the various performers and programs.

As a warm-up preview, here are photos of the main halls or spaces, all taken by Bryce Richter for University Communications:

Here is the 660-seat Mead Witter Concert Hall:

Here is the 300-seat Collins Recital Hall:

And here is the Lee/Kaufman Rehearsal Hall:

But what do you say? You be the critic.

The Ear and others hope to see COMMENTS from listeners and especially performers. What is it like to perform there? Or to sit and listen?

What does the public think of the new building and concert halls? Are you satisfied? What do you like and what don’t you like?

Should some things have been done – or not done – in your opinion?

Does the building and do the concert halls live up to the expectations and hype?

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: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: This week brings three period-instrument concerts — two of them FREE — of early music from the Baroque and Classical eras including works by Bach, Telemann and Haydn

April 23, 2019
3 Comments

CORRECTION: The concert listed below by Sonata à Quattro on Thursday night at Oakwood Village West, near West Towne Mall, is at 7 p.m. — NOT at 8 as erroneously first listed here. The Ear regrets the error.

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

This week features three concerts of music from the Baroque and early Classical eras that should attract the attention of early music enthusiasts.

WEDNESDAY

This Wednesday, April 24, is the penultimate FREE Just Bach concert of the semester. It takes place at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue.

This month’s program, featuring the baroque flute, presents the program that was canceled because of the blizzard in January.

First on the program is the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1038, for flute, violin and continuo, a gorgeous example of baroque chamber music.

Following that comes the Orchestral Suite No. 2, BWV 1067, for flute, strings and harpsichord, really a mini flute concerto.

The program ends with Cantata 173 “Erhoehtes Fleisch und Blut” (Exalted Flesh and Blood), scored for two flutes, strings and continuo, joined by a quartet of vocal soloists: UW-Madison soprano Julia Rottmayer; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe; tenor Wesley Dunnagan; and UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists, led by concertmaster Kangwon Kim, will include traverse flutists Linda Pereksta and Monica Steger.

The last Just Bach concert of this semester is May 29. For more information, go to: https://justbach.org

THURSDAY

On Thursday night, April 25, at 7 p.m. — NOT 8 as mistakenly listed here at first –at Oakwood Village West, 6209 Mineral Point Road, the Madison group Sonata à Quattro (below) will repeat the Good Friday program it performed last week at a church in Waukesha.

The one-hour concert – featuring “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Franz Joseph Haydn — is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. (You can sample the first part of the Haydn work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Commissioned by the southern Spanish episcopal city of Cadiz, this piece was originally scored for orchestra, but it enjoyed such an immediate, widespread acclaim, that the publication in 1787 also included arrangements for string quartet, and for piano. In nine movements beginning with an Introduction, Haydn sets the phrases, from “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” concluding with one final movement depicting an earthquake.

Performers for this program are:  Kangwon Kim, Nathan Giglierano, Marika Fischer Hoyt and Charlie Rasmussen. Modern string instruments will be used, but played with period bows.

The period-instrument ensemble Sonata à Quattro was formed in 2017 as Ensemble-In-Residence for Bach Around The Clock, the annual music festival in Madison.

The ensemble’s name refers to baroque chamber music scored for three melody lines plus continuo. The more-familiar trio sonata format, which enjoyed great popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, employs a continuo with only two melody instruments, typically treble instruments like violins or flutes. 

In contrast, a typical sonata à quattro piece includes a middle voice, frequently a viola, in addition to the two treble instruments and continuo; this scoring has a fuller, richer sonority, and can be seen as a precursor to the string quartet. For more information, go to: https://www.facebook.com/sonataaquattro/

SATURDAY

On Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, the veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will perform a concert of baroque chamber music.

Tickets are at the door only: $20 for the public, $10 students.

Performers are: Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Monica Steger, traverse; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

The program is:

Johann Baptist Wendling – Trio for two flutes and bass

Johann Pachelbel – Variations on “Werde Munter, mein Gemuethe” (Be Happy, My Soul)

Friedrich Haftmann Graf – Sonata or Trio in D major for two German flutes and basso continuo

Daniel Purcell – Sonata in F Major for recorder

INTERMISSION

Georg Philipp Telemann – Trio for recorder, flute,and basso continuo TWV 42:e6

Franz Anton Hoffmeister – Duo for two flutes, Opus 20, No. 1

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier – Trio Sonata, Op. 37, No. 5

Telemann – Trietto Methodicho (Methodical Sonata) No 1. TWV 42: G2

After the concert, a reception will be held at 2422 Kendall Avenue, second floor.

For more information, go to: https://wisconsinbaroque.weebly.com


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Classical music: Sunday brings the winners’ concert of the UW Concerto and Composition Competition plus a harpsichord recital

March 9, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Two more noteworthy concerts will take place this coming Sunday, March 10.

UW-MADISON CONCERTO AND COMPOSITION COMPETITION

On Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the annual winners’ concert of the UW-Madison Concerto and Composition Competition will take place.

The concert features the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top) under conductor Chad Hutchinson (below bottom) with four instrumentalists, one singer and one composer. All are current students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Admission is $12, but free to students, children, music majors, faculty and staff.

Well-know works on the program include: Adalia Hernandez Abrego and Jiawan Zhang playing the Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor by Francis Poulenc; Richard Silvers playing the first two movements of the Violin Concerto in A minor by Antonin Dvorak; soprano Cayla Rosché singing the first and third songs of the “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss; and Chia-Yu Hsu playing the Concertino for Bassoon and Orchestra by Marcel Bitsch. In addition, there will be the world premiere of “Fanfare for Orchestra” by student composer Anne McAninch.

To learn more about the concert, and to see photos and videos of the performers who discuss themselves and the works they will play, see the YouTube video below and go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/symphony-showcase-concerto-winners-solo-with-the-uw-madison-symphony-orchestra/

HARPSICHORD RECITAL

Earlier on Sunday afternoon is a concert that should appeal to early music fans: At 3 p.m. the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will present the fifth Annual Mark Rosa Harpsichord Recital.

The performance features harpsichordist Jason J. Moy (below), with special guests bass violist Katherine Shuldiner and baroque violinist Kangwon Lee Kim.

The all-French baroque program is called “The Angel, The Devil and The Sun King: Music and Rivalry in the Court of Louis XIV” and features works by Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, Jacques Duphly and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Tickets will be available at the door: $20 for general admission, $12 for seniors, students and veterans.

Moy is director of the Baroque Ensemble and a harpsichord instructor at the DePaul University School of Music. He has performed across the United States, Canada and Europe, including every Boston Early Music Festival since 2013.

One of Chicago’s most sought-after early keyboard specialists, Moy was recently named artistic director of Ars Musica Chicago. He also plays as part of the Dame Myra Hess International Concert Series at the Chicago Cultural Center. Madisonians may be familiar with his playing from his appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

You can hear him discuss playing the harpsichord and talk about its modern history in the YouTube video below. For more information, go to: www.jjmoy.com

Kangwon Lee Kim (below) is a versatile violinist on both baroque and modern violins. She is familiar to Madisonians as the concertmaster and assistant artistic director of Madison Bach Musicians. She has also given recitals throughout the U.S. and in Korea, Canada, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Norway and the Czech Republic.

Katherine Shuldiner (below) graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in viola da gamba. She performs regularly with other early music specialists, and ensembles such as the Bach and Beethoven Experience, VOX3 Collective and the Newberry Consort. She has taught at the Whitewater and Madison Early Music Festivals. www.kateshuldiner.com


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Classical music: Two noteworthy concerts of Baroque chamber music, organ music and vocal music take place this Wednesday midday and Saturday night

February 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is another very busy week for classical music in the Madison area. If Baroque music interests you, there are two noteworthy concerts this week that should attract your attention.

JUST BACH

This Wednesday, Feb. 20. at 1 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the February midday concert by Just Bach (below, at its September concert) will take place.

Admission to the all-Johann Sebastian Bach concert is FREE with a goodwill offering accepted.

Because it will be lunchtime, food and drink are allowed.

This month’s concert includes three diverse works.

Organist Mark Brampton Smith (below) will open the program with the first movement of the Concerto in D Minor BWV 596. This is Bach’s arrangement for organ of the popular Concerto for Two Violins by Antonio Vivaldi, and it comes off with dramatic effect when transcribed to the organ.

Violinist Leanne League will take the stage next, with the Sonata for Violin in A Minor, BWV 1003.

The program ends with the hauntingly beautiful Cantata 82 “Ich habe genug”(I have enough), scored for solo bass voice and oboe, strings and continuo. The vocal soloist will be UW-Madison bass-baritone Paul Rowe (below). You can hear the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing the aria in YouTube video at the bottom.) 

The orchestra of baroque period-instrument specialists will be led by concertmaster Leanne League, and will include oboist Claire Workinger (below), in her Just Bach debut.

Organizers and performers say the goal of this series is to share the immense range of Bach’s vocal and instrumental repertoire with the Madison community at large. The period-instrument orchestra will bring the music to life in the manner and style that Bach would have conceived.

The audience will be invited to sing along during the opening hymns and the closing cantata chorales.

The other Just Bach dates, all Wednesdays, this semester are March 13, April 24 and May 29.

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The veteran Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble will perform a varied concert of vocal and instrumental chamber music this coming Saturday night, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Tickets can be purchased only at the door. Admission is$20, $10 for students.

Performers are: Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Eric Miller; viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Charlie Rasmussen, baroque cello and viola da gamba; Consuelo Sañudo, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Sullivan, harpsichord; and Anton TenWolde, baroque cello.

The program is:

Nicolas Bernier – “Diane” Cantata for voice and basso continuo

Marin Marais – Pièces de violes (Pieces for Viola da Gamba), selections from Book 4

Louis Couperin – Pièces de clavecin (Pieces for harpsichord)

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier – Trio sonata, Op. 37, No. 2

INTERMISSION

Francesco Paolo Supriani – Sinfonia for cello and basso continuo

Georg Fridrich Handel – “Nel dolce dell’ oblio” (In Sweet Forgetfuness)

Tommaso Giordani – Duo for two cellos, opus 18 no 5

Georg Philipp Telemann – Quartet in G minor TWV 43 g4

Following the concert, there will be a reception at 2422 Kendall Ave., Apt. 2.

For more information, go to www.wisconsinbaroque.org


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

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By Larry Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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