The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Cellist-composer Steuart Pincombe performs music by Bach, Biber and Abel on this Thursday night at the Chocolaterian Cafe in Middleton

September 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about a special and unusual populist concert:

Cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) can regularly be found playing in some of the world’s more prestigious concert halls, premiering new compositions and soloing in major festivals.

On this coming Thursday night, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m., Pincombe will perform music in a more intimate setting: the Chocolaterian Cafe (below), located at 6637 University Avenue in Middleton. Phone is 608 836-1156.)

The concert is part of an international movement called Music in Familiar Spaces, which is bringing the classical music experience at its highest level into homes, cafes, breweries, bookstores or any place where people feel comfortable.

One of the aims of the Music in Familiar Spaces is to make classical music accessible to a wide and varied audience. This is accomplished not only by performing in familiar, comfortable and untraditional spaces, but by designing programs that invite the audience to experience the music in a new and engaging way.

The program at the Chocolaterian is titled “Sweet Sorrow” and features music of some of the Baroque period’s most beloved composers: Karl Friedrich Abel (below top in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough), Heinrich Biber (below middle) and Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom) plus an original composition by Pincombe.

Pincombe will be joined by local violinist and concertmaster of the Madison Bach Musicians Kangwon Kim (below) in a selection from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

Here is the program:

Selections in D minor (From 27 Pieces for Viola da gamba) by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787)

Violin Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Crucifixion” (From the Rosary sonatas) by Heinrich Biber (1644-1702)

Suite No. 5 in C minor for Solo Cello, BWV 1011, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). You can hear Mischa Maisky playing the Prelude to the Bach suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Psalm 56 for Voice and Viola da gamba by Steuart Pincombe (1987-)

In order to make the concert accessible to anyone, the audience is asked to name-their-own-ticket-price for the concert, paying what they can afford and what they deem the concert is worth.

The suggested ticket price is $15-30 per person, plus the cost of whatever food and drink you wish to purchase from the cafe.

Want to know more about Steuart Pincombe?

Here is a link to his home website: https://www.steuartpincombe.com

Steuart Pincombe’s career as a cellist has brought him to leading halls and festivals across North America and Europe and he has been named by the Strad Magazine as a “superb solo cellist” and a “gorgeous player [with] perfect intonation, imaginative phrasing” by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Highlights of Steuart’s recent concert seasons include being a featured soloist with Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop (Germany), festival appearances with Asko | Schönberg (Netherlands), Cello8ctet Amsterdam (Netherlands), Ensemble Ansonia (Belgium), Oerknal! (Netherlands), performing with Holland Baroque Society (Netherlands) for King Willem Alexander of The Netherlands, appearing as soloist at the Amsterdam Cello Bienalle (Netherlands), and recording Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw for All of Bach.

His concert “Bach and Beer” was selected by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as one of the Top 10 Classical Events of the Year and a concert in which he appeared as soloist with Rene Schiffer and Apollo’s Fire was numbered in London’s ‘5 Best Classical Music Moments of 2014’ according to The Telegraph (United Kingdom).

In 2015-2016, Pincombe toured North America for one year bringing classical music to new spaces and new audiences in a project he started called Music in Familiar Spaces.

He is currently visiting Teacher of Historical Performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.


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