The Well-Tempered Ear

Going live! Here are some links to newly announced summer concerts and 2021-22 seasons

June 15, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Get out your datebooks.

Now that the pandemic is fast abating, at least locally, music groups and music presenters in the Madison area have been announcing a return to live music and their new seasons and summer events in a relentless way.

The Ear had been out of commission since mid-May until this week. But in any case, The Ear was overwhelmed and just couldn’t keep up with a separate post for each one.

Still, he thought it might be helpful to be able to check the dates, performers, programs, tickets and other information in one place.

Remember that the Madison Early Music Festival is no more. It has been absorbed into the regular music curriculum at the UW.

Please know that many groups – including, but not limited to, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music (below is the UW Symphony Orchestra — masked, socially distanced and virtually streamed — during the pandemic), University Opera, Edgewood College, Just Bach, Grace Presents, the Salon Piano Series, the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Bach Around the Clock, the Festival Choir of Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and the Madison Bach Musicians – have not yet released details of their new seasons.

But most of their websites say that an announcement of their new season is coming soon.

There are also some trends you may notice.

Many of the groups are raising prices and persistently seek donations as well as subscribers, no doubt to help make up for the loss of revenue during the pandemic.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra have reduced the number of concerts or start later.

Some have simply rescheduled events, like the Wisconsin Union  Theater closing its season with soprano Renée Fleming. And the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new season is largely the same one they were planning to have to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020-21.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Willy Street Chamber Players all have pop-up concerts and scheduled outdoor concerts in parks. Some have also scheduled individual mini-concerts or personal sessions.

If you look at programs, you will see an emphasis on Black composers and performers by almost all groups. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra has scheduled “Lyric for Strings” by George Walker, below. You can hear it performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

What is most disappointing is that no group seems to have announced a special concert or event to pay homage to the public ordeal, health care workers and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ear keeps thinking a performance of a suitable requiem (by perhaps Mozart, Faure, Brahms, Verdi or Britten) or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would have been an appropriate way to start the in-person season and, at the same time, acknowledge the more than 7,000 deaths in Wisconsin and almost 600,000 deaths in the U.S. and almost 4 million worldwide as of now. Maybe even Barber’s overplayed Adagio for Strings would suffice.

Finally, very few groups seem to be offering online virtual concert attendance as a possibility for those listeners who found that they actually enjoyed at least some the  music in their own homes and at their own times.

IN ANY CASE, HERE IS WHAT HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE OR IS STILL ON TAP. CHECK IT OUT! 

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in free live and for-pay recorded concertshttps://bachdancing.org

Middleton Community Orchestra’s summer concerts at Fireman’s Park (below) in Middleton: https://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Madison Bach Musicians summer workshops (below): https://madisonbachmusicians.org/2021-summer-chamber-music-workshop/

Concerts on the Square with limited paid admission at Breese Stevens Field (below): https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square

Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers): https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/madison-symphony-orchestra-concerts/

Madison Opera and Opera in the Park (below): https://www.madisonopera.org/oitp21/; and https://www.madisonopera.org/21-22/

Wisconsin Union Theater: https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/concert-series/

Willy Street Chamber Players (below) at Orton Park: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org/2021-summer-concert-series.html

If you know of more entries or have observations to make about these, please leave word and, when possible, a link in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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This Saturday night the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and Grammy winner Sarah Brailey perform a free live-streamed concert of music by women

May 13, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (WCC, below) with a special guest — Grammy Award-winning soprano and UW-Madison graduate Sarah Brailey – will perform this Saturday, May 15, at 7 p.m.

“Music She Wrote” is a celebration of music composed by a highly diverse group of women from many ages.

Choir members will sing from their individual cars using wireless microphones, listening to the sound of the whole choir via their car radios.

The audience is invited to listen in live on YouTube and to let us know they are interested by sending an RSVP to our Facebook event.

There is no charge to view the livestream, but donations will be welcome. 

Here are the links to hear the performance LIVE on YouTube or Facebook:

https://youtu.be/Iaz0wZhuG18 or: 

https://www.facebook.com/events/1561155960751974/

The WCC had scheduled a regular concert with an all-female cast of composers for May 2020, which fell victim to Covid-19. As it became obvious that the pandemic would last longer, the WCC started exploring new ways of making and disseminating music.

From September 2020, we resumed activity in the shape of the Parking Lot Choir, generating local media coverage from WKOW-TV and Madison Magazine, whose story was headlined “Forget tailgates, parking lots are for choir practice.”

The result of this first rehearsal run was the widely acclaimed “Car Carols” concert in December 2020, whose format is the model for “Music She Wrote.”

In addition to the Parking Lot Choir, three smaller groups from the WCC assembled at the Edgewood College Amphitheater on Saturday mornings to rehearse (below) in widely spaced formations, wearing specially designed singer masks.

Another such group, made up of our members from southeastern Wisconsin, met in Whitewater on Sunday afternoons. Recordings by those four small groups will be aired during the May 15 broadcast in addition to live singing by the Parking Lot choristers.

The program includes: the Garden Songs by Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister, below), which were intended for outdoor performance; and Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women, the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement in the English-speaking world.

In addition to works by African American composers Ysaÿe M. Barnwell (below top) and Rosephanye Powell and by Cuban composer Beatriz Corona (below second), the program includes samples from outside the Western tradition — Lamma Badaa Yatathannaa, sung in Arabic, by Shireen Abu-Shader (below third), who hails from Jordan but received her academic education in the U.S. and Canada; and two pieces by Japanese composer Makiko Kinoshita (below bottom).

Western early music is represented by Italian composers Raffaella Aleotti (below top) and Chiara Cozzolani (below bottom), who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Finally, there is singer-songwriter Judy Collins with her Song for Sarajevo, composed for the children of the war in Bosnia in 1994 and arranged by her longtime collaborator, Russell Walden. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

For more details, visit: https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org/music-she-wrote.

Sarah Brailey (below, in a photo by Miranda Loud), a native of Wisconsin, studied at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she has just completed her doctorate. A consummate musician and internationally acclaimed soloist, she recently won a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Vocal Solo Album category for her role as The Soul in the world premiere recording of Ethel Smyth’s The Prison. 

She is familiar to Madison audiences not only as a performer and co-founder of Just Bach but also as the co-host of WORT’s Musica Antiqua show on FM 89.9 and the director of Grace Presents. 

As a graduate student, she joined the WCC for two seasons from 2004 to 2006. We are thrilled to welcome her back! For more information on Sarah, see her website at https://sarahbrailey.com


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This Saturday afternoon, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir presents a free online parking lot concert of “Car Carols” with an emphasis on African-American composers

December 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

Join the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) this Saturday afternoon, Dec. 12, at 2 p.m. for Car Carols, a unique holiday concert featuring live, socially-distanced performances of music by African-American composers and seasonal favorites.

Choir members will sing from their individual cars using wireless microphones (below), listening to the sound of the whole choir via their car radios. The audience is invited to join our Facebook event or listen in live on YouTube.

There is no charge to view the live-stream, but donations would be welcome. 

You can find the concert on this Saturday, Dec. 12, a 2 p.m. via the following links: live on YouTube at  https://youtu.be/ZonVn1cvgb8, or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1561155960751974/

This unusual concert format was necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the WCC is grateful for the opportunity to continue singing together in safe ways.

Since September, the choir has been rehearsing as a Parking Lot Choir, generating local media coverage from WKOW-TV at https://wkow.com/2020/10/13/wisconsin-chamber-choir-making-adjustments-to-prepare-for-performance/ and Madison Magazine, whose story was headlined “Forget tailgates, parking lots are for choir practice: https://www.channel3000.com/forget-tailgates-parking-lots-are-for-choir-practice/

This past September and October, smaller groups from the WCC assembled on Saturday mornings at the Warner Park Pavilion to rehearse in widely spaced formations. 

They wore specially designed singers masks, and occasionally harmonized with nearby sandhill cranes that seemed unsure what to make of the a cappella music floating through their habitat. 

Recordings by five distinct small ensembles  — minus the cranes — will be aired during the Dec. 12 Car Carols broadcast, in addition to live singing by the Parking Lot choristers. 

The Car Carols repertoire highlights music by African-American composers spanning nearly a century. Idiomatic pieces in the style of spirituals and contemporary gospel alternate with “non-idiomatic” motets and anthems by Nathaniel Dett (below top), William Dawson, Undine Smith Moore (below middle) and Carlos Simon (below bottom, with an oral self-portrait in the YouTube video at the bottom).

 

The remainder of the Parking Lot Choir selections consists of carol arrangements by WCC favorites — the late Stephen Paulus (below) and Peter Blotch — and feature virtual harp and violin accompaniment.

Live and virtual performers will also unite to sing Craig Hella Johnson’s moving arrangement of the songs I Love You and What a Wonderful World

Interspersed between the live Car Carols will be a wide variety of pre-recorded selections, including the world premiere of WCC member Linda Palmer’s arrangement of Sussex Carol, plus music by Johannes Brahms, John Rutter, 17th-century female composer Chiara Cozzolani (below), and Tleycantimo choquilia, a carol from colonial-era Mexico, sung in Spanish and Nahuatl. 

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world-premieres.

Artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks. WCC members have acknowledged Gehrenbeck for his intrepid conducting in freezing temperatures during Parking Lot Choir rehearsals.

 


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Classical music: A reader urges others to donate ticket refunds to support the arts. What do you think?

March 18, 2020
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ALERT: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir has canceled its upcoming concert, “Music She Wrote,” on April 18.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader — who prefers to remain anonymous but who has been deeply involved in the Madison arts scene for a long time — recently wrote:

“I’d like to suggest an angle for your column: Encourage subscribers to the various arts organizations and single ticket holders who can afford it NOT to ask for a refund on their upcoming cancelled concerts, if or when they are offered that option.

“I subscribe — on my own or as part of others’ subscriptions — to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in photo by Peter Rodgers), the Madison Opera, the Broadway musicals at the Overture Center, Forward Theater, and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Concert series. (I also buy a lot of single tickets to chamber music concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and to American Players Theatre in Spring Green.)

“As all those arts organizations cancel their concerts and plays, they still have costs. Forward Theater, for instance, is paying the full contract of all the people who were involved with the production of “The Amateurs.” And I’m glad they are.

“Personally, I will not be asking for a refund on any of the tickets I long ago purchased. I want the arts to stay healthy in Madison, and not asking for a refund is a small gesture in trying to make sure they are able to move forward.” (At bottom is the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which just announced its summer schedule from June 7 to June 28 and has not cancelled anything. Go to: https://bachdancing.org)

“You reach a lot of people and you could plant a lot of powerful seeds by making this the topic of a column.”

If you are a member of a performing arts group, what do you think?

If you are a ticket holder, what do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a program of “Live, Laugh and Love” this Sunday afternoon. Music by Brahms, Puccini, Bizet, Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others is featured

February 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday afternoon, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Landmark Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform a varied program of vocal music.

The “Live, Laugh and Love” program includes Johannes Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes (New Love Song Waltzes) along with a wide variety of solos, duets and ensembles encompassing music by Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet, Clara Schumann, John Dowland, Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The singers will accompanied by duo-pianists Mark Brampton Smith and Sherri Hansen.

Brahms (below) completed his second group of “Love Song Waltzes” in 1874, setting poems that are alternately passionate, brooding, fiery and contemplative. (You can hear some excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Building on the success of his first installment of Liebeslieder from five years earlier, Brahms’ music for the later set is more deeply emotional, mirroring the composer’s own complex romantic entanglements. Out of all Brahms’ female friends, he seems to have maintained the deepest affection for Clara Schumann (below), whose music appears on the first half of our program.

Classic arias and duets from the operas La Bohème, and The Pearl Fishers, and contemporary selections by Stephen Sondheim and Hamilton composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, round out the program to be performed in the intimate setting of the historic auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A wine-and-cheese reception will follow the concert.

Advance tickets are available online for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org or Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir. The ticket price at the door is $20.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Artistic director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) – who heads the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

 


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir sings a holiday program of Bach, Vivaldi and other composers this coming Saturday night

December 10, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below top) will perform a holiday program this coming Saturday night, Dec. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Atrium Auditorium (below bottom, in a photo by Zane Williams), 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” paired with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Advent cantata, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Nations, BWV 61), performed with the professional orchestra Sinfonia Sacra.

(You can hear the familiar and energetic opening of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” — performed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing the Vivaldi and Bach works are additional selections, including a unique collection of O Antiphons — Latin prayers for the season of Advent.

For more information about the musical form, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Antiphons

Strikingly modern compositions by John Tavener (below top, in a photo by Steve Forrest), Vytautas Miskinis and Pavel Lukaszewski alternate with French Baroque settings by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (below bottom).

Seasonal carols round out the program in arrangements by three of the WCC’s favorite composers: Peter Blotch; the late American composer from Minneapolis Stephen Paulus (below); and Giles Swayne.

Advance tickets are available for online for $20 ($10 for students) from http://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org/tickets or Brown Paper Tickets; or in person at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop, or from a member of the choir.

The ticket price at the door is $25.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms as well as a cappella works from various centuries and world premieres.

WCC artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who heads the choral program at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Since 2002, the WCC has presented cantatas and oratorios with full orchestra, annually or biennially, including last season’s Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The players assembled for these performances, known collectively as Sinfonia Sacra, are members of the best regional orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and Sonata à Quattro.

For more information about the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, including how to join it as well as its future concerts, reviews, biographies, history and recordings, go to: https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org

 


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Classical music: Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams solos in baroque and contemporary concertos this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

April 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

During his long and successful tenure with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), music director and conductor Andrew Sewell has established a reputation for championing unusual repertoire and booking young or relatively unknown soloists as well as for offering insightful interpretations of classic masterworks.

But Sewell (below) seems to be surpassing himself with the concert he will lead this Friday night, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

For one, the concert features the British recorder virtuoso Piers Adams (below), who established his own reputation as a part of the unusual baroque quartet Red Priest, the nickname for Antonio Vivaldi, who was indeed a priest in Venice with flaming red hair. (In the YouTube at the bottom, you can sample Adams’ virtuosity as he makes bird calls on the recorder while playing a section of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”)

You can also go to the following websites for more information about Piers Adams:

https://piersadams.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Adams

The Ear can’t think of another time any major group in the area offered a soloist on the recorder – a baroque wooden flute-like instrument — except for the Madison Early Music Festival.

True to form, Adams will perform baroque music with the WCO – specifically, the Concerto for Recorder in C Major by Georg Philipp Telemann.

But to add to the more unusual aspects of the concert, Adams will also perform a contemporary work with the WCO – specifically, a 1994 recorder concerto by the English composer David Bedford (1937-2011, below) that was commissioned by Adams and has proven popular both on a recording and in concert.

For more information about Bedford, go to:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bedford

To round out the program, Sewell has programmed two other rarely heard works: the “Brook Green” Suite by Gustav Holst, best known for “The Planets”; and the Serenade in E-Flat Major, Op. 6, by the Czech composer Josef Suk (below), a very accomplished violinist and composer who studied with Antonin Dvorak and then became his son-in-law.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Suk_(composer)

For more information about the concert, including tickets ($12-$80) and notes on the performers and the program, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-iv-4/


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir celebrates 20 years with a retrospective concert and alumni singers this Saturday night

April 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a retrospective concert that includes alumni.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features favorite works from the choir’s history.

Founding conductor Gary McKercher (below top) will join current artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below bottom) – who directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater — to lead the choir in this special performance.

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Familiar composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Joseph Haydn share billing with Jean Belmont Ford (below), whose Sand County, a setting of Aldo Leopold’s words, will be performed.

Also on the program are a set of pieces by Howard Helvey (below top) that the WCC commissioned in 2002, and the U.S. premiere of Utyos by longtime WCC member Albrecht Gaub (below bottom).

Alumni of the choir will participate as guest singers in the final two works on the program: Haydn’s humorous Eloquence; and Gregg Smith’s serene Now I Walk in Beauty, which is based on a Navajo prayer and can be heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. 

Immediately following the performance, audience members are invited to join the singers for cake and refreshments to celebrate this milestone in the history of one of Madison’s premiere music ensembles.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres of commissioned works.

Artistic director Gehrenbeck has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance at are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets.

Tickets are also available in Madison from Orange Tree Imports, all three Willy Street Co-op locations, and from members of the choir. Tickets at the door will be available for $20 for adults and $10 for students.


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Classical music: Sunday afternoon the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform  “Sing To Me a Love Song” featuring the “Liebeslieder” Waltzes by Johannes Brahms

February 7, 2019
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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

With Valentine’s Day coming up, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present an afternoon of love songs including Johannes Brahms’ beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (Set 1), sung in German. (You can hear the opening waltz in the YouTube vide at the bottom)

The program “Sing Me a Song of Love” is filled with various music styles  and sizes of ensembles. The intimate concert is a chance to hear a wide variety of music composed by Brahms, Samuel Barber, Gaetano Donizetti, Leo Delibes, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and others.

The concert takes place this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, 2019, at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium (below), 900 University Bay Drive.

Advance tickets for the performance are available for $15 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or from a member of the choir.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder (Love Songs) explore various aspects of love, both pleasant and painful, set to an accompaniment of a piano duet played by Mark Brampton Smith (below top) and Sherri Hansen (below bottom).

The remainder of the program features solos, duets and small ensembles sung by talented soloists from the choir including tenor Chris Eggers (below top), contralto Natalie Falconer (below second), soprano Julie Hutchinson (below third), mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood (below bottom), and many other performers.

A mix of classical music and musical theater selections balance out the program, including the sumptuous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, the opera aria Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love, and entertaining musical theater selections such as The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music) and All I Care About Is Love (Chicago).

Immediately following the event, audience members are invited to join the singers for a reception with complimentary hors d’oeuvres, wine and chocolates.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir excelled in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” despite questionable acoustics and cutting. A second performance is this afternoon at UW-Whitewater

December 16, 2018
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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

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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) gave Madison a proper gift for the holiday season with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Or with four-sixths of it, to be accurate.

Though Bach conceived of it as an integral composition, it is nevertheless cast in the form of six cantatas — one for each of the six days of the Christmas liturgical sequence, from the Nativity through Epiphany. Each cantata was meant to be self-sufficient by itself, in Bach’s conventional form for such works, with numerous chorales (in which the congregation could well have joined).

Artistic Director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below) chose, however, to omit Cantatas 4 and 6. Allowing that the performers could be glad for the extra respite, I think this was an unnecessary omission. The evening would still not be that long, at least for an audience ready to welcome more. (I will note that Gehrenbeck did turn a repeat of the festive opening chorus of Cantata 3 as a makeshift finale of Cantata 5.)

I counted 14 soloists, many from among the choir itself, a few modestly serviceable, but most really very good. Most recognizable would be tenor Wesley Dunnagan, who sang both as the Evangelist and as tenor soloist.

The chorus itself, a total of 51 in number here, was just a bit large for the work, but was handsomely drilled by the conductor. The orchestra of 23 players (11 on strings), called the Sinfonia Sacra, was contrastingly small but played with verve and eloquence. (You can hear the irresistibly energetic opening of the Christmas Oratorio in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I have great praise for the performance itself.  But I fear it was rather compromised by the venue.

Bach intended this cycle of cantatas for his sizable Lutheran church in Leipzig. But the Luther Memorial Church (below) is a much larger and loftier building than that with which Bach worked.  Its acoustics are big and reverberant. The choir, spread out before the altar, and the widely dispersed soloists, were far from much of the audience.

Their sound projected variously, rolling out into the big space in beautiful blurs. For much of the audience, that could well have been enough: lovely sounds and rhythms. But almost all the words were muddled or lost.

Now, words mattered to Bach (below), and to his congregation.  With the presence of the words all but lost, the messages of these cantatas are badly compromised. In that sense, this performance was successful sonically but not as sacred music.

Musicians obviously give thought to the settings for their performances. Their concern is very much about how well they can hear each other. But careful attention to what their audiences hear, and how that does justice to the performances. On that count, then, I found this event a mixed success.

On the other hand, I must praise the splendid program booklet, handsomely laid out, with good information, the full texts and translations, and particularly good notes on the work by J. Michael Allsen, who also did the English translations.

A second performance is this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium at the UW-Whitewater. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org


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