The Well-Tempered Ear

Season 3 of the free monthly Just Bach concerts begins at noon TODAY virtual and online. Each concert will be available for the following week. Here is the 2020-21 schedule

September 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Just Bach monthly concert series – featuring singers as well as period instruments and historically informed performance practices — to post:

“We are thrilled to share the timeless beauty of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) with music lovers in Madison and beyond for another year.

“Our host venue, Luther Memorial Church at 1021 University Ave., has resumed their weekly ‘Music at Midday’ concert series: https://www.luthermem.org/music-at-midday/

“As part of this series, the one-hour Just Bach concerts will take place at noon on the third Wednesday of each month. Here are the dates for the new 2020-21 season: today Sept. 16; Oct. 21; Nov. 18; Dec. 16; Jan. 20; Feb. 17; March 17; April 21; and May 19.

“Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is still too risky to have an in-person audience. So Music at Midday concerts will be virtual and online, posted on the Luther Memorial website.

“In addition, Just Bach concerts will be posted on the Just Bach website, the Just Bach Facebook page, and the Just Bach YouTube Channel.

“The concert footage should be available online for at least a week following the concert. At least that is the plan.

“Viewing the concerts is FREE, but we ask those who are able, to help us pay our musicians with a tax-deductible donation.

“Today’s concert program opens with the Pastorale in F, BWV 590, performed by organist Mark Brampton Smith (below).

“Violinist Kangwon Kim (below), concertmaster and assistant artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will continue, with the Partita No. 2 in D Minor, with the famous Chaconne, for solo violin, BWV 1004 (see a brief preview in the YouTube video at the bottom).

“Co-founder and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt  (below) will lead the final chorale sing-along, from Cantata 99, Was Gott tut, das isn wohlgetan (What God does, is well done).

“The chorale sheet music (below) will be displayed on the screen, and Mark Brampton Smith will accompany on the organ. Cantata 99 is a timely choice. It was composed for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, which is next Sunday, Sept. 20.

“We need this soul-centering music now more than ever. We invite the music community to join us today and other Wednesdays for a wonderful program of J.S. Bach.”

Sept. 16 program:

  • Pastorale in F, BWV 590
  • Partita in D Minor for solo violin, BWV 1004
  • Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does, is well done)

Performers: Kangwon Kim, violin 1; Mark Brampton Smith, organ

For more information go to: https://justbach.org and Facebook.org/JustBachSeries

 


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Classical music: This year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock proved a 10-day success. Here is a news update with a date for 2021

August 31, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following message from artistic director and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt (below top) about this year’s virtual Bach Around the Clock and the dates for next year’s festival when amateur and professional musicians will again celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):

Greetings! I hope this finds you well and finding ways to maintain equilibrium in these tumultuous times.

I’d like to thank you all again for making our 10-day 2020 Virtual Festival (one example is in the YouTube video at the bottom) such a success.

After the sad cancellation of our in-person festival, it was wonderful to see so many of you playing and singing Bach! It reminded me of the Dr. Seuss book; the COVID Grinch may have stolen the trappings of our festival, but we just held it anyway! (Below are members of the Suzuki Strings from a previous BATC festival.)

With the summer over, the BATC board of directors is looking ahead to next year’s festival, which will take place on Saturday, March 20, 2021. We don’t yet know what format it will take — whether in-person, virtual or some combination — but we will explore all available options.

If you have suggestions, please contact us.

Meanwhile, with so many concerts canceled, I hope you can find other ways to include music in your lives. I’ll continue posting Bach-related articles and performance links on our Facebook page

If you have the means, please consider donating to artists and ensembles whose livelihoods have vanished for the foreseeable future.

Thank you again for being part of the BATC community, and please take care.

 


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Classical music: Here is how the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) plan to continue lessons and performances this fall despite the coronavirus pandemic

August 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has just received the following updates from an email newsletter about the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Over more than 50 years, WYSO has served tens of thousands of middle school and high school students in southcentral Wisconsin and northern Illinois. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the WYSO Youth Orchestra play a virtual performance from the past season of the famous finale from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture.)

After many weeks of planning, and in consultation with Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) and the McFarland School District, WYSO is excited to announce a fall semester plan that will mark a safe return to in-person music-making—and our first season at the McFarland Performing Arts Center (below) https://www.wysomusic.org/the-wyso-weekly-tune-up-april-17-2020-wysos-new-home/

We had a brief delay last Friday when PHMDC released Emergency Statement #9 delaying in-person start dates for all schools in Dane County. We checked in with the Public Health agency and they re-affirmed that WYSO is not a school —and the 15 students maximum-sized groups outlined in this plan are absolutely perfect. It is time to set up the tents!

The WYSO season will begin on the weekend of Sept. 5, when the winds and brass students from all three full orchestras (Youth, Philharmonia and Concert) will begin their fall rehearsals outside under two enormous tents in the McFarland High School parking lot (below). The 60 winds and brass students will be divided into approximately nine or 10 cohorts, who will meet in two-hour blocks on Saturdays and Sundays.

With a single cohort of masked and socially distanced students spread out within the 40′ x 60′ tent, with “bell covers and bags” for their instruments, the season will not look like any previous WYSO Fall.

If you’ve not been involved in the new science of aerosol transmission, this whole scenario might seem very curious. The reasoning is simple: The winds and brass instruments have been singled out as more problematic since you have to blow into them to make music. The blowing releases more “aerosols,” the tiny droplets that can transmit the coronavirus.

However, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have recently released the first results from a five-month study and have found that the following actions bring down the transmission risk considerably:

  1. Social distancing 9 to 15 feet apart.
  2. Adding bell covers and bags (below) for the instruments (essentially the instruments have to wear masks as well as the students).
  3. Playing outside, which reduces risks due to the increased air circulation.

Because we are in Wisconsin, the “outdoor” location shortens the season for the winds and brass players so by beginning the season on Sept. 5 and ending on the weekend of Oct. 24, they can just squeeze in an 8-week cycle.

Meanwhile, the WYSO string and percussion players, approximately 300 in number and representing all five orchestras, will begin their fall season indoors on Oct. 17, after McFarland moves to a hybrid model for the school year.

The string players will be divided into 15-student cohorts by orchestra, with a wonderful mix of violins, violas, cellos and basses in each group, and with the groups spread throughout one wing of the high school in large music rooms and atriums.

The percussionists have been scheduled into the new Black Box Theater and they are excited to begin playing on the brand new marimbas and timpani so recently acquired by WYSO through a gift from an incredibly generous anonymous donor.

Everything has been carefully scheduled so that at any given time there will not be more than 125 students, conductors and staff in the building.

Start and end times have been staggered. The large beautiful spaces at McFarland will easily hold the socially distanced and mask-wearing players. And the orchestras will again be scheduled into Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons. Even the WYSO Chamber Music Program (below) has been scheduled into the intricate puzzle.

The rest of this exciting fall story has to do with adding incredibly talented professional musicians to lead some of the cohorts and the amazing repertoire available for groups of 15 musicians, whether they play winds, brass, strings or percussion.

From Mozart’s “Gran Partita” to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and 6; from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite” to Bartok’s Divertimento, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings — there is almost an “embarrassment of riches” of exciting, seldom-played repertoire, to quote WYSO Music Director Kyle Knox (below). And this fall, that repertoire will be right in WYSO’s wheelhouse.

WYSO will video-capture this year’s Fall Concerts of students playing in the beautiful McFarland Performing Arts Center to 800 empty seats and let you know the exact Fall Concert dates as we get closer. Click here for additional information.

While WYSO is incredibly excited about our in-person plan for rehearsals and playing music together, we have also drawn up two alternate plans, and know that not everyone will be able to participate in-person.

WYSO Registration is underway, and we are asking those who cannot participate in the McFarland experience to let us know their needs through the registration process, so that we can create the best virtual experience possible for those involved. Tuition payment is not due at registration.

To register, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/members/wyso-registration-form/

 


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s virtual Opera in the Park goes online for FREE this Saturday night and stays up until Aug. 25. Listen to it indoors or outdoors

July 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park isn’t in a park this year — as it has been in past years (below) — but it will be available for people to enjoy for free in their backyards, in their living rooms or anywhere else with an internet connection.

The digital concert will be released on this Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m. CDT, and can be watched on Madison Opera’s website, www.madisonopera.org/digital, where you can find complete information and, soon, a complete program to download.

The annual free concert has moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a newly created program of opera arias and more.

Digital Opera in the Park features: soprano Jasmine Habersham; soprano Karen Slack; tenor Andres Acosta; and baritone Weston Hurt. (The last two will sing the justly famous baritone-tenor duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Habersham (below) makes her Madison Opera debut with this unique performance, and will sing Susanna in the company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April.

Slack (below) debuted with the company in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and will be part of the company’s digital fall season.

Acosta (below) sang Timothy Laughlin in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers with Madison Opera this past February.

Hurt (below) debuted as Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and is part of the company’s digital fall season.

The four singers will be joined by several important local artists. They include violinist Suzanne Beia, the assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the second violin of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

There will also be a fleet of eight pianists. They include MSO music director and Madison Opera’s artist director John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Prasad) and the UW-Madison graduate and composer Scott Gendel (below bottom). The two will play multiple numbers, including DeMain accompanying Beia on the beautiful “Meditation” from Thaïs.

Each singer recorded their arias with an accompanist in their home cities, and chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below top) both accompanies and conducts the Madison Opera Chorus (below bottom) in a virtual “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.

The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s Channel 27 News co-anchor George Smith.

“Reimagining Opera in the Park in the pandemic era has been a challenge, but one we have happily embraced,” says Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “Our wonderful artists were game to record themselves in their home towns, to sing duets with each other through headphones, and to share their artistry with our community in a new way. Over 40 choristers joined a Zoom call to get instructions, and then they recorded their parts of the ‘Anvil Chorus.’”

“While in some ways this concert has required more work than our live Opera in the Park in Garner Park, it is always a pleasure to present beautiful music for everyone to enjoy.”

Digital Opera in the Park features music from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, now canceled in live performance but originally slated to open Madison Opera’s 2020-21 season; Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, which the company performs in January; and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Verdi’s Don Pasquale, Puccini’s Tosca, Massenet’s Hérodiade and Thaïs, Rossini’s William Tell, Pablo Sarozabal’s zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and more.

The concert will be available beginning at 8 p.m. CDT on this Saturday night, July 25, and will remain online until Aug. 25, allowing for both repeated viewing and flexibility for people who are unable to watch on the first night.

While Digital Opera in the Park will be free to watch, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals who believe in the importance of music. Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2020:

  • Presenting Sponsor: the Berbeewalsh Foundation
  • Sponsors: the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, Johnson Financial Group, MGE Foundation, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.
  • Media Sponsors: WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida.

RELATED EVENTS include:

OPERA ON THE WALL | JULY 25, 2020 | ONLINE

Madison artists Liubov Swazko (known as Triangulador) and Mike Lroy have created artwork around our community, including beautiful murals on State Street storefronts.

In an act of artistic cross-pollination, they will create an artwork that comes from their personal response to Digital Opera in the Park, offering a rare glimpse of visual artists responding to musical artists. Their creative process will be filmed in the Madison Opera Center, and shared online starting on July 25.

The finished artwork will be displayed in the Madison Opera Center. Go to Swazko’s website at triangulador.com (one work is below) and Lroy’s website at mikelroy.com to see their past work.

POST-SHOW Q&A | JULY 25, 2020, IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE INITIAL STREAM

Join Kathryn Smith and the Digital Opera in the Park artists for a post-concert discussion, including an opportunity to ask questions. Details on format and platform will be available closer to the date.

 


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players postpone their sixth season from this summer to next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic

May 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Willy Street Chamber Players, one of his favorite classical music groups, summer or winter. Their programming and performing are first-rate. Indeed, in December of 2016, The Ear named the Willys “Musicians of the Year.” For an overview of the ensemble, see the YouTube video at the bottom.

For more information and links, go to: http://www.willystreetchamberplayers.org

Dear WSCP Family,

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the postponement of this

July concert series to summer 2021.

 

Just a few weeks ago, we were hard at work putting the finishing

touches on an amazing 2020 summer season. We had no idea the

COVID-19 pandemic would soon bring everything to a screeching

halt.

 

As we have continued to monitor the situation, we have become

increasingly convinced that postponement is the best path forward.

The health and safety of our audience, musicians and community

remain paramount.

We are eager to find ways to serve our community during this

extremely difficult time and will begin by highlighting some of our

wonderful Willy Street neighbors, friends and past partnerships on

our Facebook page.

 

As a subscriber to our mailing list, you’ll also have access to some

very special video memories and unique surprises in the coming

months to thank you for for your support.

 

We are devastated we won’t be able to share our music with you

this July, and our hearts go out to everyone affected by COVID-19.

We will get through this together.

 

We know that we have created something truly special together

over the past five years and look forward to continuing our beautiful

east side tradition for years to come.

 

Stay safe, keep in touch and see you soon,

WSCP

 

 

 


Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: Friday night, the UW Concert Choir marks the assassination of JFK and the opening of Hamel Music Center. Plus, WYSO gives a Wisconsin premiere with a returning alumna as soloist

November 21, 2019
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ALERT: This Friday night, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra, under conductor Kyle Knox, will present a concert with two guest artists performing the Wisconsin premiere of the Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon composed for them by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, who is known for his lyricism. (Sorry, there is no word about other works on the program.) Tickets are $10, $5 for 18 years and under, and are available at the door starting at 6:15 p.m.)

The two soloists are principals with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The bassoonist is Nancy Goeres, a Lodi native who is a returning WYSO alumna. If you want to read an interview with her and get more background, you can’t do better for a preview than the piece by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and Channel 3000. Here is a link: https://www.channel3000.com/madison-magazine/arts-and-culture/wisconsin-youth-symphony-welcomes-two-special-guests/1143372727

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. this Friday, Nov. 22, in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, the UW-Madison Concert Choir (below) will perform its first solo concert in the new Hamel Music Center.

Conductor Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison who will retire at the end of this academic year, sent the following announcement:

“The a cappella program is entitled “Fall Favorites: Houses and Homecomings.”

“This year I’m particularly picking some of the pieces I like the best from my years here, although I’ll still add a few new things.

“The “Houses” part is primarily “Behold I Build an House” by American composer Lukas Foss (below), which was written for the dedication of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and which I thought was a good piece for the opening of the Hamel Music Center.

“We’re also performing the wonderful -and difficult —“Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” which British composer Herbert Howells (below top) wrote in memory of John F. Kennedy (below bottom). You’ll notice our concert is also on Nov. 22, the same day in 1963 when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. (You can hear the Howells work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Besides these two big works are wonderful motets by Orlando di Lasso, Maurice Duruflé, Heinrich Schütz and Melchior Vulpius, plus some African, American and African-American folk songs.”

 


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Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions

November 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/10/28/classical-music-the-madison-opera-performs-verdis-la-traviata-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon-in-overture-hall/

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.


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Classical music: This weekend guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine solos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program

October 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) makes her debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor.

The concert by the orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) opens with Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé and concludes with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State St., on Friday night, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $19-$95. See below for details.

“There will be great discoveries in our all-Russian concert, starting with the MSO debut of virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a big, bold and beautiful work in its MSO premiere,” said MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). Lieutenant Kijé is sure to delight you with its wonderful melodies and infectious rhythms. Shostakovich has become a favorite with our audiences, and his ninth symphony is delightfully upbeat.”

Lieutenant Kijé is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia. The story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934, with music by Sergei Prokofiev (below). The plot is a satire on bureaucracy and is often parodied in fictional works making fun of bureaucracies, most famously in the form of the M*A*S*H television episode “Tuttle,” featuring a fictional captain of similar provenance. (You can hear the popular “Troika” episode in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many of the themes in Violin Concerto in D minor are evocative of the native Armenia of Aram Khachaturian (below). Although the folk melodies aren’t played explicitly, one can hear the Armenian roots through the oriental essence of the scales and the rhythmic range of the featured dances. The piece won the Stalin Prize in 1941, becoming one of Khachaturian’s favorites.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 is entirely unlike his other symphonies. In fact, it completely disregards the expectations for its programmatic elements. Shostakovich’s prior two symphonies are thematically tied to the ongoing war, therefore the public presumed that the ninth symphony would be a grand culmination to Stalin and mark the end of World War II. Instead, the composer (below) produced a short, neo-classical work that generated an abundance of controversy.

ABOUT RACHEL BARTON PINE

In both art and life, violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below) – who has performed in Madison before with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra — has an extraordinary ability to connect with people.

Celebrated as a leading interpreter of great classic and contemporary works, her performances combine her innate gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. She plays with passion and conviction, thrilling audiences worldwide with her dazzling technique, lustrous tone, and infectious joy in music-making.

A prolific recording artist, she has also championed the works of female composers and African-American composers.

Pine was also recently named the recipient of the Cedille Records Musical Partnership Award for her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. The Foundation was recognized as an organization that has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the classical music community in Chicago. Cedille noted the Foundation’s “support of the Chicago musical community’s most valuable asset — its musicians and composers.”

Pine was presented with the award by U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose son, Jim Ginsburg, founded Cedille Records. Pine began her Foundation in 2001 to provide instruments and instruction to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

You can read the Artist Story online about how Rachel Barton Pine overcame severe injuries and her own personal adversity to achieve her goals: https://madisonsymphony.org/19-20-artist-story-rachel-barton-pine-overcomes-adversity/

CONCERT, TICKET AND EVENT DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

One hour before each performance, retired MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/msooct19programnotes.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.


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Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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