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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
Surely the greatest and happiest surprise of this summer’s music season is the sudden emergence of the Willy Street Chamber Players (below), a group of mostly string players that almost seems to have popped up out of the ground spontaneously.
They have introduced themselves in four concerts on successive Fridays this month—experimenting with shorter-length, one-hour programs, and giving three of them at 6 in the evening, and one family concert at Friday noon.
Each concert has drawn progressively larger audiences at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top) on Spaight Street, on the city’s near East Side.
Most important, the group involves a bevy of former University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music students who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who are simply brimming over with talent and with the joy of making music together.
Their final concert this season, on last Friday night, officially offered two works. As a “thank you” to the increasing number of sponsors and a swelling public, however, the group also gave a glowing performance of the Gavotte movement from the “Holberg” Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (below). (You can hear the tuneful Grieg played by a much larger and far less intimate chamber orchestra in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
As now properly recognized, the Bach concerto is a work for nine solo string players (three each of violins, violas, cellos — below top, second and third in that order respectively) with basso continuo from the harpsichord (below bottom).
The intricacy of the part writing, especially involving constant interaction of the six upper parts, is particularly well appreciated when one can actually watch the players, who presented the music with a splendid combination of dash and discipline. (And they solved the notorious problem of what to do with the two-chord middle “movement” by adding only the tiniest violin cadenza on the first chord—very sensible and responsible.)
The final, and larger, work on the program was the Octet in E-flat by Felix Mendelssohn. This is the creation of an astoundingly precocious 17-year-old genius, and by general agreement it is a virtual miracle of composition.
Mendelssohn’s recourse to such a demanding scoring was not without precedent. He composed this in 1825. At about the same time, in the years 1823-47, the violinist-composer Louis Spohr (below) wrote four “Double Quartets” opposing two discrete string quartets against each other.
And, quite frequently, in his writing Mendelssohn does adopt the same strategy, pitting two distinct groups against each other. But he also explores the possibilities of eight-part texture, rich in contrasting colors and contrapuntal invention. It both is, and is more than, a simplistic double quartet.
Our eight Willy Street players did position themselves (below) as two opposing string quartets — with the cellists out in front, for a novel emphasis on the bass line.
Once again, it was such a benefit to watch these players engage each other in so many different ways. And with what spirit! Here was the music of a teenage genius, played by eight young players who threw their youthful élan into their work with unbounded passion. Yet there was also discipline, and the most careful nuancing of each player’s lines.
I would say that this is possibly the best performance I have ever heard of this work, certainly in live concert—something up to the highest professional and artistic standards.
I find it difficult to express fully my excitement over the sudden creation of this marvelous pool of young musicians. They have made it clear that this was just their first season: they are planning to return next summer, with some possible activities in between.
For member biographies, news and other information, here is a link to the group’s website:
With minimal promotion so far, based on simple word-of-mouth publicity, The Willies — as I call them — have already found a swelling and enthusiastic audience.
Madison’s lovers of highest-class chamber music should take note, support and attend. How can I say it better? They are simply fabulous! It is an enormous blessing to any community that is lucky enough to generate such players!
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear knows quite a few retired people who say they would like to start learning to play a musical instrument — either for the first time or else to pick up where they left off, usually in childhood.
But they quickly add that they hesitate because they think it is something you really have to do in childhood or at least when you are much younger.
Not so, says psychologist Francine Toder (below), who herself took up the cello after retiring in her 60s. You can see other examples in the YouTube video at the bottom.
In fact, in her book “The Vintage Years,” Toder argues that retirement is the best time to unlock your creative self. That applies not only to learning a musical instrument but also to writing and to painting and other forms of the visual arts.
Here is a link to the page. On it, you have to click on play the story. You can also leave a comment if you go through the security process of signing in.
And please leave a COMMENT on this blog with a comment about you own experience with learning the arts in retirement.
And here is a link to the home page for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which has the appropriate acronym TTBOOK:
By Jacob Stockinger
A fan of the blog writes:
“Here’s a talker of a topic: Erotic reactions to musical moments.
“It’s not such a good video. But you could ask for suggestions.”
And that is what I will do: Ask for suggestions of music you find sexy and have a physical response to, with a YouTube link if possible.
Leave them in the COMMENT section.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
The critics’ judgments are in and they seem unanimous: iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other similar streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. In the end, CDs and vinyl LPs are far better than streaming for a quality listening experience.
The difficulties apparently have to do with engineering and the limits of technology, specifically of the digital compression of sound.
Here are three good and convincing critiques to read:
From The Atlantic magazine:
Here is an analysis from the prolific and always interesting reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for National Public Radio (NPR) and its outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. She tackles other streaming services including Pandora and Spotify. She focuses on the organization and the difficulty of finding the music you want to listen to:
By Jacob Stockinger
The new group The Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — certainly the biggest and most successful music news story of this summer — will end its first summer season with a MUST-HEAR concert on Bach and Mendelssohn this Friday night at 6 p.m.
The concert is at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, which has both a performance space with fine acoustics hall and plenty of free parking.
Admission is $12 for adults; $8 for students and seniors.
You could hardly ask for a better program, which features two undisputed masterpieces.
The first is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It is scored without violins but for lower strings and it is irresistible for its melodies and harmonies and especially for its driving energy and rhythm.
The second work is the astonishing Octet -– really a double string quartet –- by Felix Mendelssohn (below) who composed it when he was only 16. It may well be Mendelsohn’s best work. It too is irresistible is its energy and melodies. It is thrilling and one of the quintessential chamber music works of all time! (You can hear the impetuous opening in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Ear is going and so should you.
By all accounts, the inaugural season of the Willy Street Chamber Players -– which included everything from classic Handel, Mozart, Brahms and Dvorak to new music by contemporary composers and a noon concert for families – has been a great success.
Here is a link to a review The Ear did of the first concert:
It’s enough to make one hopeful about a second season for the group and to make one impatient to see the programs.
The Ear bets both are already in the works!
By Jacob Stockinger
It happened again.
There I was, writing in the early morning.
But this particular morning host Stephanie Elkins played a piece that I had never heard. It stopped me in my tracks.
It is so beautiful and poignant, and it moves so slowly and movingly that The Ear thought you should also hear it.
It is the Interlude by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar from his cantata “The Song.” If his other music is as good, Stenhammar (below) might well deserve a rediscovery. He was a prolific composer with several symphonies and piano concertos to his credit.
The Ear hopes you enjoy this rarely performed work as much as he did.
Perhaps my memory is faulty. But I don’t recall hearing it performance live in Madison.
Yet it might make a nice curtain raiser or encore for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra or the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.
ALERT: A reminder that tonight at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, the newly formed group the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) — whose members also play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and other groups — will present a concert of works for strings and piano by living composers, including Paul Schoenfield (you can hear the first movement of his “Cafe Music,” which is on the program, in a YouTube video at the bottom) and UW-Madison School of Music students. Admission is $12, $8 for students and seniors. For more information, here is a link to the group’s website:
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friends at the Rural Musicians Forum write:
The University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s faculty brass ensemble, Ensemble Nouveau, takes the stage at Hillside Theater in Spring Green, at famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound Taliesin, as part of the Rural Musicians Forum summer concert series, on this coming Monday night, July 27 at 7:30 p.m.
The Hillside Theater (below) is located at 6604 Highway 23 in Spring Green.
The concert is not ticketed and is open to the public. A free-will offering will be taken to support the concert series. For additional information and driving directions see www.ruralmusiciansforum.org.
The ensemble’s performance will be held in the fashion of the quickly growing trend called “Classical Revolution,” where audiences hear classical music in a setting that is different and more accessible than typical concert venues and settings. Since the ensemble formed in 2009, it has performed at community centers, schools and radio stations in northern Illinois, Chicago, northeast Iowa and all across Wisconsin.
“The novelty of the group is that each member plays at least four different instruments when we perform,” said David Cooper, associate professor of trumpet and chair of the Department of Performing and Visual Arts. “Another unique feature of the group is that we arrange all of our own music because no musical arrangements exist with parts written for our unique combination of instruments.”
The group began as a quartet of four UW-Platteville faculty members and held its first concert in 2009. The group soon attracted the attention of Wisconsin Public Radio because of the quality of the members’ musicianship.
Today, the group has grown to a sextet: Cooper, who plays B-flat, C, E-flat, flugel horn and piccolo trumpet; Matthew Gregg, associate director of bands, who plays French horn, mellophone, flugel and trumpet; Allen Cordingley, lecturer of saxophone and jazz studies, who plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone; percussion instructor Keith Lienert, who plays an assortment of instruments including the drum set, marimba and steel pan; Corey Mackey, lecturer of clarinet, guitar, chamber music and music appreciation, who plays all members of the clarinet family; and David Earll, lecturer of music technology, chamber music and music appreciation, who plays different tubas and euphonium.
In the photo below, members of the Ensemble Nouveau are, from left to right, David Earll, Matthew Gregg, Keith Lienert, Corey Mackey, David Cooper, Allen Cordingley.
Ensemble Nouveau now represents almost every musical member of a typical high school band program, and its program is widely varied.
“I’ve never played with a group like this before – where the literature varies so much, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Stevie Wonder to Astor Piazzola,” said Gregg. “We can play a multitude of styles: jazz, classical, funk, Latin – you name it, we play it.”
“I enjoy the challenge that comes from the uniqueness of the group,” said Cordingley. “This group is a small version of a concert band, involving all types of instruments and all types of music. During Renaissance times, consorts of musicians played in diverse locations. It almost feels like we’re old-time consorts playing contemporary music in our own diverse locations.”
In an important way, Ensemble Nouveau is also an attractive representation of what the UW-Platteville Department of Visual and Performing Arts has to offer.
As Cooper says: “We are part of this ensemble because we want to be. This group has a sincere camaraderie that reflects our passion for music and our appreciation for the opportunities we have at UW-Platteville.
“We want students at area high schools to know that they will have access to world-class players, musicians and singers at UW-Platteville. It’s important to keep music alive. Ensemble Nouveau is going to do everything in its power to do that.”
Ensemble Nouveau promises an evening of exuberant all-brass music. It will not be “all crashing cymbals and honking tubas,” Gregg insists.
For openers, two talented student flutists from the Wisconsin River Valley, Brenna Ledesma and Carly Stanek, will be featured. Each will play a solo selection followed by a duet.
By Jacob Stockinger
Last Thursday night, The Ear attended the annual Handel Aria Competition.
And once again, he found himself in Handel Himmel.
This was the third year in a row for the competition, which was founded by local merchants and music patrons Dean and Orange Schroeder (below).
Here is a link to a Q&A post in 2013 with Dean Schroeder discussing the genesis of the competition:
And it sure seems that, with more incremental improvements yet again this year, this third time could prove the charm in establishing the competition as a permanent event.
Here is a link to the competition’s home website with news of the winners soprano Sarah Brailey (first, below center), countertenor Andrew Rader (second, below right) and mezzo-soprano Margaret Fox (third and audience prize, below left), the last of whom did graduate work at the UW-Madison School of Music:
For one, the attendance seemed bigger and applause sounded louder than in the past two years. The word is out.
Also, the competition returned to Mills Hall, which has better seating, better sight lines and better acoustics — to say nothing of better restrooms — than Music Hall, where it was held last year.
Here are some other things The Ear especially liked about this year’s Handel Aria Competition:
The Madison Bach Musicians — with harpsichord, two violins, cello, viola and especially an oboe — accompanied the singers.
That felt much more authentic for opera and oratorios than the solo harpsichord the first year or the small group last year. It sounded great and added a depth that allowed you to really hear how Georg Frideric Handel bounced parts back and forth.
One organizer told me she hopes that the ensemble will return next year. The Ear hopes so too. Everybody hopes so. They did an outstanding job and added a lot.
There were only seven contestants (below). Even so, the event started at 7:30 and ran until almost 10 p.m. That makes for a long night. Splitting them into four and three, then adding in time at the end for judging by the judges and the audience, made it more manageable than in previous years. But The Ear would like to see the finalists whittled down to five or six.
This year also saw more unusual repertoire offerings. I heard less from such well-known works as, say, “Messiah” — which should be banned from the competition — and more from unusual works such as “La Resurrezione,” “Siroe Re di Persia,” “Orlando” and “Teseo.”
That helped me to appreciate the range of Handel’s music. (Listen to the lovely aria “Ferma l’ali” from “La Resurrezione” in a YouTube video at the bottom. It was the opening piece sung by winner Sarah Brailey.)
The contestants also seem to get more evenly matched and more professional every year, showing greater ease and better stage presence. That is probably only to be expected as news of the competition spreads among early music enthusiasts.
BUT: There was one sour note. I did hear some very strong complaints from quite a few very knowledgeable listeners that soprano Kristen Knutson (below) did not receive any prize.
Yet she seemed to possess the complete package. She demonstrated a strong and expressive voice, with great pitch and diction plus terrific ornamentation, and she showed a fine stage presence.
Was she shut out — or robbed, as one listener bluntly put it — because she went first? Whatever the reason, she deserved much better recognition than she got. The Ear hope she returns next year and does as well as she deserves to.
What did you think of this year’s competition?
Of the performances and of the judging?
By Jacob Stockinger
Violinist Tanesha Mitchell (below in a photograph by Richard Anderson) isn’t alone.
Like her, there are many string and brass players, wind players and percussionists, who have studied music and have become pretty accomplished amateurs.
And many of them, The Ear, suspects, dream of playing even just one concert with a professional orchestra.
Talk about community outreach!
Each year, the BSO holds an amateur week – it is called Academy Week — in which 80 talented amateurs get to play with and under the tutelage of professionals in the symphony orchestra and its conductor. Participants get seven rehearsals and a full concert as well as private lessons.
The Ear wonders how much it costs and how they choose participants.
You can hear more about it in a YouTube video from 2011 at the bottom.
It seems kind of like Interlochen summer music camp, but for adults instead of teens.
Here is a story that aired Saturday on NPR or National Public Radio.
For those amateurs with dreams of professional music-making glory – for even just a week – it is a must-hear story.
And it makes you wonder if it could help the future of classical music if more symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra – adopted something similar.
What do you think?
The Ear wants to hear
By Jacob Stockinger
Recently, NPR or National Public Radio featured a story that The Ear found very interesting and engaging.
The subject was how certain composers took inspirations from bird songs and even tried to imitate specific bird songs — such as that of the Ceti’s warbler (below) — in certain compositions including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2.
And when the connection wasn’t specific, the composers still tried to evoke the bird sonically.
The composers cited in the four-minute story were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ralph Vaughan Williams (listen to the YouTube video at the bottom with Hillary Hahn and Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) and Ottorino Respighi.
The Ear is sure there are many other examples of composers, works and specific bird species that are all linked. Antonin Dvorak comes to mind immediately.
If you know of any, please leave the names in the COMMENT section.