The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet and new UW clarinet professor Alicia Lee perform a sublime all-Mozart program

September 30, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet has begun its 2017-18 season amid uncertainties.

The most notable one is the current indisposition of cellist Parry Karp, whose injury to two fingers of his left hand has prevented him from playing for the immediate future.

Quartet members (below in a photo by Rick Langer) are, from left, David Perry and Suzanne Beia, first and second violins; Sally Chisholm, viola: and Parry Karp, cello.

But the group has pressed on bravely, offering an all-Mozart concert last Sunday night in Mills Hall.

The first of two works was the buoyant but challenging String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Replacing Karp was a guest cellist, Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below right and bottom), who is familiar to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s summer concerts.

Fonteneau played elegantly and fitted into the ensemble quite smoothly. And the other three players performed with their accustomed precision and style.

But just one personnel change makes a difference. Clearly missing was the robust tone and firm foundation that Karp has imparted to the ensemble’s playing for so long.

If the G major Quartet is a Mozartean model of its kind, we move to Olympian heights with the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 — a chamber work (below) with only the tiniest number of peers in this scoring.

Joining the quartet this time was a new UW-Madison faculty member, clarinetist Alicia Lee (below).

Petite but totally confident, Lee brought to the string ensemble not the edgy aggressiveness so often heard from clarinetists but rather a glowing mellowness that balanced neatly with the string sounds.

The loveliest moments seemed to me to be the slower passages, and the exquisite slow movement was truly ethereal. (You can hear the Larghetto slow movement, played by clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Preceding the concert was an announcement by Linda Graebner of the consolidation of the Pro Arte Quartet Forward Fund, which is seeking to raise an major endowment for the quartet.

Bolstered by that effort, then, the PAQ is some five years into its second century, determined from many sides to cope with its uncertainties.

NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet’s next performance is this coming Thursday: a FREE performance at NOON in Mills Hall of the String Quintet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Jean-Michel Fonteneau will again be the cellist and the guest artist is the internationally renowned violist Nobuko Imai (below). Imai will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class in strings and chamber music on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players open a new season with an impressive program impressively played

July 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Willys never disappoint.

Last Friday night, the six Willy Street Chamber Players (below) opened their third summer season at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

And once again, even though The Willys are relative newcomers, it is hard for The Ear to imagine a more perfect or more enjoyable concert.

The large and enthusiastic audience (below), which has grown considerably over the past two years, seemed to agree, judging by the standing ovations, loud applause and overheard comments.

So what made The Willys’ concert so great and so enjoyable?

Start with the basics

It was summery and informal. Shorts, T-shirts and sandals felt entirely appropriate.

It wasn’t expensive. A $15 ticket seems very affordable compared to what so many other local groups charge.

It wasn’t too long. They played just three pieces – two short and one long — that lasted under 80 minutes. That way you can enter the zone; concentrate hard and focus while you stay in the zone; and then leave the zone for good with time to do other things, including attend the post-performance reception with cookies, ice cream and coffee.

Spoken informal introductions to the pieces – each given by a different player – served as program notes, and they were kept short and to the point. (Below is cellist Mark Bridges humorously explaining the complicated love life of Brahms and how it affected his composing the string sextet.)

The playing itself was exemplary. (It featured the six core members plus guest violinist Suzanne Beia, below front left, of the Pro Arte Quartet, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

The Ear detected no sour notes, no false starts or stops, no uncertain passages or interpretation. The well-rehearsed Willys played with precision as well as heart.

The program was typical Willy fare. It mixed short and long, old and new.

The old classics were two: Hugo Wolf’s charming “Italian Serenade” for string quartet (below) and with the String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, by Johannes Brahms, a long piece that received an energetic and thoroughly compelling reading.

But the star of the evening for The Ear came first: Jennifer Higdon‘s string quartet setting and contemporary take on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The riffs on the familiar tune by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (below) was new to The Ear and proved completely engaging, unmistakably modern-sounding yet accessible. (You can hear the Higdon work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Higdon string quartet (below) recalled an American tradition of using religious music for non-religious purposes. Think of how Charles Ives and Aaron Copland used old hymns and camp meeting songs, the most famous being Copland’s use of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

To be honest, a lot of new music just doesn’t speak to The Ear or reach him emotionally. It often makes him feel superfluous.

But The Willys have a knack for picking the right kind of new music that captures and holds The Ear’s attention, including the String Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass, the String Quartet No. 5 “Rosa Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain and “Entr’acte” for string quartet by Caroline Shaw.

It is a gift The Ear hopes they keep as they choose other contemporary composers and new music to perform with tried-and-true classics.

And if you want to hear more, you can go to The Willys’ website for details about the two remaining concerts this summer plus a FREE family-friendly Community Connect appearance at the east side Goodman Center from noon to 1 p.m. this Saturday. There they will play the works by Caroline Shaw and Daniel Bernard Roumain as well as “Tango for Four” by Astor Piazzolla and the Viola Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 111, by Brahms. (NOTE: An earlier mistake here and on the Willys’ website listed the String Sextet by Brahms rather than the Viola Quintet.)

The Willys complete the regular subscription season with performances at Immanuel Lutheran on two Fridays, July 21 (with music by Elvis Costello, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich) and July 28 (with music by Franz Schubert, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Both performances are at at 6 p.m.

For more details about the performers and the programs, here is a link:

http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/calendar.html

You shouldn’t miss The Willys in concert.

But if you do, you should know that Madison’s classical music documentarian and chronicler, Rich Samuels (below), is recording all the concerts to play this fall on his Thursday morning radio program “Anything Goes” on WORT-FM 89.9. Stay tuned for more information about air times.


Classical music: Is this the minority report of a dissenter? The Ear offers some thoughts and after-thoughts from recent concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Pro Arte String Quartet, the Middleton Community Orchestra and pianist Christopher Taylor. Plus, here are links to rave reviews of this afternoon’s final all-Beethoven concert by pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 9, 2014
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ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center is the final performance of the all-Beethoven concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. It features pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) in TWO piano concertos (Nos. 2 and 5 “The Emperor”) plus the Symphony No. 1 and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture. Here are links to two rave reviews of the concert by Madison Magazine critic and blogger Greg Hettmansberger and by Isthmus critic John W. Barker, who also guest blogs for The Ear. It sure sounds like a NOT-TO-BE-MISSED concert. See you there!

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2014/A-Piano-Concerto-Doubleheader-and-Beethoven-to-the-Max/

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42237

Yefim Bronfman portrait

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a very busy time musically in Madison, with a lot of previews to post, which often supplant reviews since The Ear thinks previews are more useful than reviews to most listeners and performers. And this coming week and weekend are even worse. So much music, and so little space!

But here are some “outdated” capsule reviews, impressions really, with accompanying afterthoughts that come to The Ear as he listened and later thought about what he had heard:

MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND TRUMPETER TINE THING HELSETH

It seemed a curious, even odd theme for a Valentine’s Day program. But BRASS – not romantic love — marked the Valentine’s Day weekend performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), although ending with the “Rosenkavalier” suite by Richard Strauss did indeed prove an inspired choice to combine brass and love. Plus by all accounts, the concert sold very well. It sure got standing ovations. In short, it may have seemed odd, but it worked.

MSO playing

The “Doctor Atomic” Symphony by the contemporary American composer John Adams (below), who put the instrumental work together from his own opera score, was powerful, and also fit the brass bill, with great solos by MSO trumpeter John Aley, and was impressive to hear –- though also hardly romantic.

John Adams

Given conductor John DeMain (below) and his stupendous taste and talent for choosing great singers who are also affordable, I kept thinking: How I would like to have heard some great singers perform familiar and unknown love arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Saint-Saens, even Wagner. Now those would be symphony tickets to throw in with a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. But The Ear has been informed that such concerts often do not sell well and might also be seen as competing with the local opera company.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

All that said, I thought that the guest soloist, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (below), proved an inspired, if unexpected, choice. She showed an uncanny power for playing softly. Brass instruments are not easy to control with little breath and with soft tone. But she did both beautifully in two concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian. She clearly has the lung power to blow down the Walls of Jericho. But what impressed and seduced me was her quietness, which nonetheless possessed rich tone and unwavering pitch. That is a rare talent, and one to be cherished — and brought back to Madison!

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Maestro Andrew Sewell (below) has a never-failing knack of finding terrific music that has been overlooked but is actually very good, if not revolutionary or pioneering.

Sure, at his last concert I too, like the rest of the audience, loved what he did with the Jupiter Symphony of Mozart –- not too hectic, clear voicing, propulsive energy even with all the repeats. And the talented and congenial soloist Joshua Roman proved an irresistible highlight in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major.

Andrew Sewell BW

But the real surprise of the night was the 20th-century Concerto Grosso by Vittorio Giannini (below), who taught composition at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music and then established the North Carolina School of the Arts. What a discovery! I want to hear more by this guy.

Vittorio Giannini

And Sewell will soon unwrap another surprise this week –- and I expect, as usual, that it will be modern music that is accessible and tuneful, not R&D Music (that’s short research and development) that sounds like jet noise or broken plumbing.  Could that help explain why he gets full houses?

Sewell and the WCO will probably do so again THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. That is when he and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra combine the famous famously listenable and lovely Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Karina Canellakis) by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony (Symphony No. 101 of his 104 symphonies) with “Elements” by American composer Michael McLean (below, and with a sample of  “Elements” in a YouTube video at the bottom). Sounds like another MUST-HEAR concert  to The Ear.

Michael McLean 1 REAL not mormon

PRO ARTE QUARTET

Well, the headlines and chit-chat went rightfully to the world premiere of Belgian composer Benoit Mernier’s commissioned String Quartet No. 3, which sounded fiendishly difficult and seemed based largely on technical stuff like trills, tremolos and glissandos instead of themes and infectious rhythms. And the Pro Arte Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music since 1940 and celebration its centennial, played it with impressive aplomb and apparent ease.

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

“Do you like the music?” someone asked me right after the performance.

I think the better question is: “Does the music like me?”

Think about it: What is the composer’s responsibility to you the listener, and what is your responsibility to the composer (Mernier, below), especially if he seems to ignore you?

Benoit Mernier 1

I also loved the rarely heard and beautifully performed viola quintet by Anton Bruckner and particularly the contrasts between Sally Chisholm’s viola and Samuel Rhodes’ viola (the two are below side-by-side). If you liked the combination –- and what is not to like with the darker hued voice of the viola –- be sure to try the viola quintets by Mozart and Brahms, which I would also like to hear the Pro Arte do more of.

Sally Chisholm and Samuel Rhodes in Bruckner Quintet

But for old-fashioned me, the star of the evening was the Haydn Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4. It just cleaned out your ears and was proof again that, at its best, the genre is indeed still as it was described by Haydn himself when pretty much invented in the 18th century: A conversation of equals. And did the Pro Arte ever play it with accuracy, clarity and texture. It sparkled like a diamond. The string quartet may have evolved, changed or morphed over the centuries, but it has simply not gotten any better than Haydn.

So: Is there any chance that we night get of a multi-year Haydn cycle by the Pro Arte, which decades ago in another avatar or configuration of players started to record the complete Haydn quartets in the famous Abbey Road studio in London for RCA. They have done Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles. What about Papa Haydn? And if not a complete cycle of the 68 or so quartets, how about a fairly comprehensive survey or at least a very large sampler of Haydn’s early, middle and late styles?

Haydn

PIANIST CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR

What more can you say about the award-winning, audience-approved star talent pianist Christopher Taylor (below) who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and concertizes around the world, and his stunning solo recital this year?

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

I loved the “War” Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a great piece that he performed greatly with both riveting energy and heartbreaking lyricism. I also loved the encore — Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” –- as a contrast and change of pace.

But I have to be honest: I have heard enough of the Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Trust the genuine original! Accept no substitutes!

The next day I listened to a recording of the same work by a real orchestra — the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig under conductor Riccardo Chailly. What a difference when the “Eroica” is played with real brass countering, with jarring dissonance, real strings; when it is real tympani drumbeats rather than bass tremolos on the piano. Ludwig (below) simply had more of IT – whatever musical genius is — than Franz.

Beethoven big

The real “Eroica” Symphony doesn’t — and shouldn’t — sound so much like a Hungarian Rhapsody or a Transcendental Etude. In their day, these transcriptions served a purpose and they stretched the resources of the piano, or at least, of pianists. Now, they strike The Ear as precious, more of a sideshow of amazing and ingenious pianism and not much little else aside from some strokes of minor genius here and there by the Paganini of the Piano.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

From one of those transcriptions I learned something and I enjoyed it. But now that makes three down (symphonies numbers 3, 4 and 5) for Taylor. I, for one, sure hope we don’t have the other six to go. How much more I would have preferred to hear this supremely talented pianist and gifted musician in some serious and original piano repertoire –- maybe a late Schubert sonata, or a Bach partita, or a Chopin ballade, or a Schumann cycle. I want to hear Christopher Taylor in something that puts depth over display, substance over style.

Am I alone in that wish?

MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA

Guest reviewer John W. Barker covered this recent concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below), which featured music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thoughtfully and thoroughly for this blog.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

All I would add is a lesson that every teacher knows: Students with lesser abilities rise to meet high expectations. That is why symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras should book the best soloists they can get and afford: The Ear is convinced that the level of playing and performing usually rises to match the soloist and fosters cohesion.

With the MCO, it was two lifelong friends and award-winning, UW-Madison trained string players -– violinist Eleanor Bartsch and violist Daniel Kim (below) who soloed and who seemed in complete synch, down to the timing of their trills, during Mozart’s sublime Sinfonia Concertante.

Their playing was superb, and the amateur orchestra rose to meet them and give them the beautiful support they deserved. And with Mozart there is no place to hide, so flaws or mistakes are quickly revealed.

Eleanor Bartsch and Daniel Kim MCO Mozart

Well, now it is on to another busy week of concerts.

Where, I wonder, will the music lead The Ear this time?

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