Milwaukee's SistaStrings and new works by other Wisconsin composers make for a strong lineup in the festival's fourth year. Info/tix
Over the past few years in Madison, a variety of musicians and event organizers have injected noticeably more contemporary classical and "new music" into the city's music landscape, and have worked to shake up the format of classical-music concerts. The LunArt Festival's emphasis on women composers, the bold experimentation of groups like Sound Out Loud, the jazz-classical blurring of Mr. Chair, the Willy Street Chamber Players' dressed-down open rehearsals, and even the Madison Symphony Orchestra's video-enhanced 2016 presentation of Gustav Holst's The Planets all offered reminders that classical music is moving forward, and increased the odds of diversifying its audience. The Madison New Music Festival, now in its fourth year, is also advancing those goals. This year's festival spans four concerts and places a heavy emphasis on composers and performers with Wisconsin ties.
Friday's opening-night show, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is a program of music by "ten living composers who were born, educated, or currently reside in Wisconsin." Those composers include UW-Milwaukee lecturer Amanda Schoofs, whose work has spanned a number of avant-garde and electronic approaches, and Jeff Herriott, whose project Bell Monks ended up on Tone Madison's top 20 Madison records of 2016 list. During Saturday's "World Premieres" concert at the First Unitarian Society, cellist James Waldo will play a new work from veteran jazz saxophonist and UW-Madison professor Les Thimmig, and violist Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and pianist Karl Larson will play new sonatas from composers Andrew Norman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Scott Wollschleger.
Perhaps the weekend's most refreshing and accessible offering is a Sunday performance at Robinia Courtyard by the Milwaukee duo SistaStrings. Cellist/vocalist Monique Ross and violinist/vocalist Chauntee Ross play nuanced but compact pieces that elegantly twist together elements of classical music with widely varied strands of folk, pop, and jazz sounds. Both their original compositions and re-interpretations of older works combine a stately heft with sprightly inventiveness. "Cadenza For Chauntee," from SistaString's 2019 EP Lift, starts with a powerful violin solo, then launches off into something resembling a very harmonically adventurous bluegrass track. On "Her Name Was," an original song on the EP, the Rosses weave together warm plucked lines from both instruments and showcase their powerful yet vulnerable vocal chemistry. On top of all that, the song offers an empathetic portrait of a young woman's struggle to find her place in the world: "I saw a girl, her name was / She always smiled / It never reached her eyes." SistaStrings' music is so much more than a mere novel hybrid; it's really a whole dimension of different influences and ideas, converging upon two musicians who explore it with patience and skill. This year's festival wraps up later on Sunday at the Terrace, with a free set from the Madison New Music Ensemble. —Scott Gordon