The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF) starts a week-long exploration of how the Lutheran Reformation and the invention of printing changed Western music 500 years ago. Part 1 of 2

July 2, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday and running through the following Saturday, the 19th annual Madison Early Music Festival will explore the profound effects that the Lutheran Reformation had on Renaissance and Baroque music of the time.

The festival, to be held at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, is called “A Cabinet of Curiosities: A Journey to Lübeck.” For a complete listing of programs, lectures, concerts and workshops, with information about tickets, go to the website: https://memf.wisc.edu

Soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe — who co-directs the festival with UW Arts Institute’s Sarah Marty and with her husband and UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe — recently agreed to do a Q&A with The Ear about the upcoming festival. Here is Part 1 of 2. The second part will appear tomorrow.

How successful is this year’s festival compared to others in terms of enrollment, budgets, performers, etc.? How does MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

Each year enrollment in the workshop averages 100 students. As of June 15, we have 110 students enrolled. MEMF attracts students of all ages, from 18–91, amateurs and professionals, from all over the country and Canada.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

The ensemble Quicksilver (below, in a photo by Ian Douglas, and located at quicksilverbaroque.com) is returning to Madison after several years to open the MEMF Concert Series.

This will be an incredible virtuosic display of chamber music played at the highest level, and includes violinist Julie Andrijeski, sackbut player Greg Ingles and gambist Lisa Terry; harpsichordist Avi Stein and violinist Robert Mealy are on the faculty at the Juilliard 415 program, which is creating a fantastic opportunity for instrumentalists to study Baroque music with some of the finest early music professionals in the country.

Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, will return to play a live concert of the CD they just released, Back to Bach. For more information, go topiffaro.org

The Tuesday concert is at Luther Memorial Church. Abendmusik (Evening Music) features organists John Chappell Stowe (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), of the UW-Madison, and James Kennerley (below bottom) joined by the MEMF Faculty.

Abendmusik, refers to a series of performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany. In the 17th century through 1810, a series of concerts were paid for by local business owners to provide admission for the public. Organists Franz Tunder and his successor Dietrich Buxtehude, organized the Abendmusiken with performances of organ, instrumental and vocal music. For more, go to: https://www.jameskennerley.com/

New to MEMF, Schola Antiqua of Chicago — see schola-antiqua.org — will perform on Friday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. They will sing musical treasures from a program prepared last fall for The Newberry Library’s exhibit “Religious Change 1450-1700” on the occasion of the quincentennial of the Lutheran Reformation.

Printed musical artifacts from the multidisciplinary exhibit testify to a period filled with religious dynamism and struggle with both theological and musical traditions. Their director, Michael Alan Anderson, will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. with projections of the printed music from The Newberry Library.

Why was the theme of “A Cabinet of Curiosities: Journey to Lübeck” chosen for the festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?

We chose the 2018 theme to explore the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and how the shifts in religion and 16th-century printed materials, including music, changed the world.

The Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck was an important musical center at this time. Built with Catholic ritual in mind, it easily was turned into a Lutheran church in the early 16th century as Lübeck changed into a Protestant town due to the Reformation that was inspired by Martin Luther.

The composer Dieterich Buxtehude (below) was the organist at the Marienkirche and was an improvisational genius. He attracted many musicians throughout Europe to come and visit, including Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel.

Around this same time collectors were sorting their wide-ranging collections of objects into “cabinets of curiosities,” and sometimes the categorical boundaries were not defined. With new-found compositional freedom, 17th-century composers similarly created many musical wonders and curiosities, stretching the boundaries of musical conversation.

We will be featuring works of Buxtehude, Tunder and Matthias Weckmann, and there will even be a bit of Bach on Sunday night’s concert by Piffaro.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – How did a Reformation in religion and printing technology change music?

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Classical music: This coming weekend, pianist John O’Conor returns to play a Beethoven concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night and then a solo recital at Farley’s on Saturday night

May 7, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The acclaimed Irish pianist and teacher John O’Conor (below) returns to Madison this weekend for two concerts that will close out the season for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night and the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Piano on Saturday night.

For more about John O’Conor‘s impressive background as a performer, a recording artist, a pedagogue and a juror for international piano competitions, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_O%27Conor

WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

The first event with O’Conor is an all-Beethoven concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The WCO concert is on Friday night, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

The program features the Overture to “King Stephen”; the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, with O’Conor as soloist; and the popular, dramatic and iconoclastic or even revolutionary Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

Such repertoire from the Classical period is one of O’Conor’s strong suits as well as one of the WCO’s. When the two last performed together in 2016 O’Conor and the WCO played works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Irish early Romantic John Field.

Plus, O’Conor studied Beethoven with the legendary Beethoven interpreter Wilhelm Kempff.

So this concert promises to be a dynamic experience with perfectly paired players.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10.

For more information about O’Conor and about how to obtain tickets, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-v-3/

SALON PIANO SERIES

Then on Saturday night, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, located at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near the West Towne Mall, pianist O’Conor will give a solo recital to close out the Salon Piano Series.

The program includes the Sonata in B minor by Franz Joseph Haydn; Four Impromptus, Op. 90 or D. 899, by Franz Schubert; Nocturnes Nos. 5, 6, and 18 by the Irish composer John Field (below), whose neglected works are a specialty of O’Conor; and the iconic “Moonlight” Sonata in C-sharp minor by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear O’Conor perform the exciting and virtuosic last moment of the “Moonlight” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A reception follows the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door, with student tickets available for $10.

For more information and to purchase tickets, call (608) 271-2626 or go to these two web sites:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2995003


Classical music: Meet Isabelle Demers, who performs an unusual organ recital tonight at 7:30 in Overture Hall

April 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) welcomes the return of organist Isabelle Demers (below) for a recital tonight, Tuesday, Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Professor of organ and head of the organ program at Baylor University, Isabelle Demers enjoys a very active recital career with performances worldwide from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne to Madison.

Her program entitled The Three B’s includes music by Edward Bairstow, Joseph Bonnet, and Hector Berlioz with Demers’ own transcription of Berlioz’s blistering “Symphonie Fantastique.” She is renowned for her dazzling performances, dynamic style, and universal audience appeal.

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/demers, where you can also see Demers’ complete program, or by calling (608) 258-4141, or by going to the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ.

Here is a Q&A that the MSO did with Demers, who has more than two dozen videos on YouTube, including her own transcriptions of sections from “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that is at the bottom:

MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.

ID: I grew up in Quebec, Canada, and started piano when I was 6. Most of my family works in sciences, but my mother wanted music to be an important part of my education. I entered pre-college at the Montreal Conservatory when I was 11 and really loved it, so it was not a very hard decision to choose music as a career later on.

My mother also suggested that I learn organ when I turned 16; she thought it would be a good instrument for me, while I saw it as a way to pay for my piano lessons. I guess the moral of the story is that one should always listen to their mother.

MSO: What differentiates you from other organists?

ID: I’m much shorter and I have a lovely French-Canadian accent. Seriously, I think I have a different feel for registration because I didn’t grow up with organ music. I listened to lots of orchestral and operatic works as a teenager, and I think that it influences the way I register most works, especially transcriptions.

I also have a more extensive background as a pianist than most other organists, so virtuosic works might come slightly more easily to me. (By the time I stopped playing piano, I had learned almost all the Chopin etudes, for example.)

MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?

ID: Definitely the wide range of sounds and dynamics at our disposal! Being able to create my own sound world on every instrument I play is a very exciting part of my job. I don’t always play the same works, but even if I did, they often sound completely different when you try them on new instruments. I also like the physical aspect of playing organ; it’s good to get all your limbs moving together, especially when they are all falling on the right keys at the right time!

MSO: What would you say to someone at their first organ concert?

ID: Let yourself be moved by the instrument. Instead of trying to understand every note, listen for the bigger gestures, for the colors, for the larger picture. The organ has the potential to be very exciting and moving, but first one must forget that it is essentially a big machine.

If you don’t like the colors or the music, then hopefully it is possible to see the organist. I always find it fascinating to watch people play, and see how they can manage all the knobs and buttons on the console.

MSO: Other than playing the organ, what are some interests of yours?

ID: I love traveling, reading, spending time outside when it’s cold (which unfortunately doesn’t happen much in Texas) and cooking. I like to make ice cream, which is obviously very popular with the students as well. On my last visit to Madison I was able to try sour cream ice cream, which was delicious! I’ve tried to reproduce the recipe at home, but I think I’ll need some more practice.


Classical music: Fresco Opera Theatre premiers its original prequel to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” this Thursday though Sunday

April 4, 2018
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ALERT: UW-Madison clarinetist Alicia Lee (below) will perform a FREE faculty recital this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. She will be joined by two fellow faculty members: collaborative pianist Martha Fischer and violist Sally Chisholm of the Pro Arte Quartet.

The program includes sonatas by Johannes Brahms and 20th-century Russian composer Edison Denisov as well as four Bagatelles by contemporary German composer Matthias Pintscher and the “Kegelstatt” Trio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For more information about he program and the performers, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-concert-alicia-lee-clarinet/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about a production that promises to be one of the most original musical events in Madison in a long time, something that sounds like a cross between Broom Street Theater and the Madison Opera.

This is especially true since The Queen of the Night in this production is sung by Caitlin Cisler (seen below by herself and  rehearsing with Jonathan Ten Brink), who also played the Queen of the Night is last year’s production of “The Magic Flute” by the Madison Opera. (You can hear the famously virtuosic aria sung by The Queen of the Night in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Folks –

I am extremely proud of Fresco’s next production “The Queen Of The Night,” which is our original prequel to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

This is a new production from the ground up! New music. New story. New songs.

The music is by Jordan Jenkins, and the libretto-story is by Andrew Ravenscroft and Amy Quan Barry.

It is a world premiere opera called, “The Queen of the Night.” Mozart was given a gift from the immortals to bestow the world with “The Magic Flute,” and now it’s up to us to tell the untold story that has been hidden in secret for over 200 years. The opera is steeped in Masonic symbolism, secret rituals and lush musical melodies.

Using the characters from “The Magic Flute,” “Queen of the Night” tells the background story of the Queen and her struggle between darkness and light.

Here is a synopsis:

The Queen of the Night lives in the Realm of Night, a place of perpetual darkness. Sarastro, a sorcerer priest from the Realm of Day, enters her world and they fall in love.

Their children, Papageno, Pamina and The Three Ladies, are born from the shadows. They are stalked by Apophis the Serpent, an ancient denizen of the night who hates Day, and is jealous of the QUEEN’s feelings for Sarastro, and wants to destroy him.

Apophis persuades a young prince from the borderlands named TAMINO to enter the Realm of Night on the promise of a reward if he will destroy Sarastro.

Night and Day are at odds with each other and a storm of black magic awaits anyone that gets in the way of the Queen’s happiness

This production has musical virtuosity and is visually stunning. I am confident that Mozart would approve of what we have created.

We are performing in the legendary Madison Masonic Center, 301 Wisconsin Avenue, a beautiful performing space (below) that allows us to stretch out in a way no other space can.

If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will.

Do come see “Queen of the Night.” We will not disappoint! It is a fantastic show, and you will be supporting LOCAL artists!

There will be four performances: Thursday night at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.

Tickets cost $10-$75.

For complete information about the cast as well as how to order advance tickets, go to:

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3320280

As we approach 10 years at Fresco, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to usher in that milestone than with “The Queen Of The Night.” It is new and fresh, but rooted in tradition.

See you at the Masonic Center!

Jeff Turk, Emeritus President, Board of Directors

www.frescooperatheatre.com

https://www.facebook.com/frescoopera

Melanie Cain, Artistic Director

Frank Cain, Executive Director


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra reveals a leaner Sibelius and violin soloist Tim Kamps proves masterful in a rarely heard concerto by Alexander Glazunov

March 2, 2018
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CORRECTION: The performances by the Madison Symphony Chorus that were incorrectly listed for this coming Sunday in yesterday’s post took place last Sunday. The Ear apologizes and regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

Under maestro Steve Kurr, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) again showed its capacities for offering surprisingly excellent concerts with its latest one on Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center.

The guest soloist was a fine young local violinist, Tim Kamps (below). His vehicle was an interesting venture off the beaten path. How often do we hear the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov? Well, we were given a chance this time.

This is not your typical Romantic concerto. It is not long, and is essentially an entity in four sections—not distinct movements, but a steady continuity, with interconnecting thematic material. Glazunov did not always do the best by his themes, somewhat burying them in the total texture. Still, this is very listenable music, with a solo part that is full of virtuosic demands but avoids overstatements.

Kamps (below) did full justice to the florid parts, but used his sweet and suave tone to emphasize the lyrical side of the writing as much as he could. In all, he provided a worthwhile encounter with an underplayed work of individual quality. Kamps is an experienced member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but he deserves more solo exposure like this.

The program opened with Rossini’s overture to his comic opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). There is a lot of good fun in this piece, but a corrupt edition was used which reinforced the brass section to coarse effect. Moreover, Kurr gave the music a somewhat leisurely pace, rather diminishing its vitality and thrust. (You can hear the familiar Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The big work of the program was the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. Here again, as so often before, conductor Kurr and his players bravely took on a workhorse piece of challenging familiarity. There were a few rough moments, especially some slight slurring here and there by the violin sections.

But Kurr (below) wisely chose not to seek polished sound for its own sake. Rather, he drove the orchestra to convey constant tension and drama, with a fine ear for the frequent exchanges and dialogues between instrumental groups, notably in the long and high-powered second movement.

By such means, we were able to hear less of the Late Romantic bombast usually stressed and more of the lean textures that Sibelius was to perfect in his subsequent symphonic and orchestral writing.

The orchestra played with steady devotion, once again demonstrating what an “amateur” orchestra could work itself up to achieving.


Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Seraglio” stood out for its singing and staging, its local sets and costumes, and provided a crowd-pleasing comic romp in trying times. Plus, Friday brings FREE piano and viola da gamba concerts

February 15, 2018
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FRDAY ALERTS: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Eric Miller playing the viola da gamba in a recital of early baroque music by Marais, Forquery, Sainte-Colombe, Abel, Hume and Ortiz. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Then on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed guest pianist Marina Lomazov will perform a FREE recital of all-Russian music that includes “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky. Lomazov’s recital is part of a larger event, “Keyboard Day,” that has a French focus and takes place all day Saturday at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. See tomorrow’s post for more information about Saturday. For more about Lomazov, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-marina-lomazov-piano/

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy filed this review of last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera:

By Larry Wells

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the second and final performance of Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

This comic romp utilized a beautiful set and wonderful costumes designed and constructed in-house. (Below, Matt Bueller as Osmin peers out the door of the palace, or seraglio, at David Walton as Belmont.)

The orchestra, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and ably led by maestro John DeMain, was situated backstage. This was an effective novelty, although the sound was somewhat muffled, at least from where I sat in mid-orchestra.

The dialogue was in English while the singing was in German with English supertitles. I looked over the lengthy original libretto and was thankful that it had been heavily abridged for this two-hour production.

It had also been updated to be both hip and politically correct about Islamic culture and Turkey, where the story takes place. But it made me idly wonder what the reaction would be if the music had been likewise updated to be more in tune with the times.

The production was all about the singing.

David Walton’s Belmonte (below right, with Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze) was beautifully sung, particularly in the second act. He has a Benjamin Britten tenor voice with remarkable breath control.

Eric Neuville’s Pedrillo was also admirably sung. Neuville is an accomplished comic actor, as well.

Ashly Neumann’s singing as Blonde (below center, with women of the Madison Opera Chorus) was clean, clear and bell-like.

Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze (below right with Brian Belz as Pasha Selim)  was virtuosic. She displayed vocal fireworks several times and was especially effective in her lament toward the end of the first act.

This quartet’s ensemble work in the second act was a vocal high point. (You can hear the quartet from a different production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But to me the most impressive singing and comic acting belonged to Matt Boehler as Osmin. His bass was simply majestic. (Below, from left, are Brian Belz as Pasha Selim; David Walton as Belmonte; Matt Boehler as Osmin; Eric Neuville as Pedrillo; Ashly Neumann as Blonde; and Amanda Woodbury as Konstanze.)

The well-prepared chorus appeared briefly in each act, adding some color and motion to the production.

Musically and visually the production was a success. The audience responded with 19 ovations during the performance – yes, I counted. Every time the orchestra reached a cadence and paused, the audience members applauded as if they were at a musical. With the incessant coughing throughout the performance, I felt like I was at a performance of “South Pacific” in a tuberculosis ward.

The audience leapt to its feet at the end, and this made me wonder what it was that they found so praiseworthy. The story itself is inconsequential and has little relevance to life today.

The singing was very good, but this is not La Scala.

The music itself, with the exception of a couple of sublime moments, does little more than foreshadow the mature Mozart of “The Magic Flute.”

I concluded that the opera is unalarming, unthreatening, and simple. This is perhaps what people long for in these trying times.

I do look forward to the Madison Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” this spring. Based on repeated hearings of the recording, I guarantee that Madison will be in for a treat. And there is nothing threatening or alarming or complex about the music, despite it being a work of the late 20th century.


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform rarely heard repertoire this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

January 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their 2017-2018 season series “Journey” with a concert titled Horizon on this Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m.

As the group often does, it will present a program of old and new works by composers who are rarely heard or performed.

Both concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on the city’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Sunset 1892 by Michael Mikulka is a musical interpretation of a painting by influential American landscape artist George Inness. (Below is another sunset painting, “Sunset Montclair – 1892,” by George Inness, whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.)

The pastoral colors are represented musically in an evocative manner by the warm timbres of the clarinet and the viola interwoven with pianistic light and shadow. An emerging American composer, Mikulka (below) saw his piece win the grand prize in a 2008 competition. (You can hear it, and see the original inspiration, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serenade for Five Instruments by Italian composer Alfredo Casella (below) was written for a music composition contest in 1927. It nimbly combines the contrasting sounds of the clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, and cello. His musical style is attributed in part to the influence of his avid appreciation for visual art.

This piece was one of the composer’s favorites and is a delightful work with five short contrasting movements that range from lilting to witty to sweetly melodic. Casella studied with Gabriel Faure and was film composer Nino Rota’s composition teacher. (Rota is famous and most familiar for his soundtracks for movies by Federico Fellini, but he also composed a lot of outstanding chamber music.)

Quintet for Winds and Piano by Swiss composer Hans Huber (below) was premiered in 1918 and written for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Listeners will perceive the influence of Brahms and Schumann in his Romantic style. However, Huber definitely shows individual flair in his approach. The four-movement work is spirited and captivating, and features each of the instruments over the course of the composition with an obvious talent for virtuosic piano writing throughout its entirety.

Guest instrumentalists are Jason Kutz, piano (below); Ariel Garcia, viola; and Halie Brown, trumpet.

The members of the Oakwood Chamber Players (above) are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Nancy Mackenzie, clarinet; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello.

This is the third of five concerts in the Oakwood Chamber Players’ 2017-2018 season series entitled Journey. Remaining concerts will take place on March 10 and 11; and May 19 and 20.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who have played with other ensembles such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.


Classical music: What music best expresses the “bomb-cyclone” and Arctic blasts?

January 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Weather-wise, the past couple of weeks have been unforgettable and, in many ways, unbearable.

First, around Christmas, we had one bitterly cold Arctic blast.

Then after New Year’s Day came the massive “bomb-cyclone” that brought snow and ice, high winds and flooding, to the East Coast all the way from Florida to Maine.

Next came another Arctic blast – that put most of the country into the deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures that broke records over a century old.

(How, The Ear wonders, does the Arctic blast differ from the Polar Vortex of a few years ago? And who invents such colorful names that certainly seem new.)

Such extreme wintry weather has brought misery, hardship and even death to wherever it struck.

With luck, the coming week will see a return to more normal temperatures and more normal winter weather.

Still, the past few weeks got The Ear to wondering: What music best expresses such extreme kind of winter weather?

The highly virtuosic and aptly named “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11, by Frederic Chopin came to mind. Its swirling notes suggest the howling wind and bitter cold while the minor-key melody has a certain dirge-like or funereal quality to it.

You can hear it played by Evgeny Kissin in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear is sure that many readers could suggest other musical depictions of extreme winter weather.

So please leave the name of the composer, the title of the work and, if possible, a link to a YouTube video performance at the bottom.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 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 WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Opening Gala concert with a guest soloist and big pieces, and move the all-orchestra concert to a later date?

October 28, 2017
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You can’t blame longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years.

After all, the orchestra members play well and respond superbly to DeMain’s direction, no matter what you might think of his programming and interpretations. He is proud of them with good reason.

So The Ear can easily understand why for the past few years DeMain has chosen to use an all-orchestra concert, with its principals taking the place of guest soloists, to open the season.

Yet DeMain also likes to emphasize the challenges he faces in selling tickets, filling seats and keeping the MSO a commercially successful orchestra.

The Ear noticed that this year, the all-orchestra opening concert of works by Bach-Stokowski, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, with principal violist Christopher Dozoryst as soloist, seemed to draw a smaller and less enthusiastic audience than the second concert did last weekend.

That second concert included the “Mother Goose” Suite by Ravel, the surefire “New World” Symphony by Dvorak and the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber with guest pianist Olga Kern (below). The audience wildly cheered her and her flashy, virtuosic playing until it received an encore (the Prokofiev etude heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So the question came to The Ear:

Should the MSO return to a traditional Gala Opening, with a surefire program and a high-profile guest soloist, and leave the all-orchestra concert until the second concert of the season?

The Ear checked out what other orchestras do.

This year, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened with a gala program that featured pianists Yuja Wang and Jean-Yves Thibaudet teaming up in an all-Mozart program. The San Francisco Orchestra featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed pianist Emanuel Ax and the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened with Frederica von Stade, plus other singers, in an all-Bernstein program.

True, the Sheboygan Symphony also used the all-orchestra opener, and The Ear is sure there are many other orchestras, including some prominent ones, that do the same.

But it got The Ear to wondering. So he asked some other loyal MSO fans what they thought about returning to a traditional Gala Opening – one that announces to potential subscribers that great soloists will be featured during the season – and then moving the all-orchestra concert to a different date.

All the people he spoke to agreed that such a move would probably draw bigger audiences and capture the public’s attention better. One loyal patron even said that by going to the all-orchestra opening, the MSO (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was “just being cheap.”

Plans are probably already being made for next season, so it is likely too late to make any changes that soon.

But what about the 2018-19 season?

What do you think?

Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Gala Opening that features big-name soloists and well-known pieces?

Should it move the all-orchestra concert with principal soloists to, say, the second concert of the season?

Or should things stay the way they are?

Which way do you think would be more commercially successful and sell more seats for that concert and for the rest of the season?

And which way would be more artistically satisfying?

The Ear wants to hear.


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