By Jacob Stockinger
We all remember the superstar conductors, conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. Even the popular media recognize them as celebrities. More recently, one could conceivably put Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev in the same category.
The most recent one to capture and hold the public’s imagination in such a charismatic way was Gustavo Dudamel (below), the passionate and almost hyperactive young man who emerged from poverty in Venezuela through the “El sistema” that offered free classical music education. He now is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Probably the latest candidate for that elite club is Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Torsten Kjelstrand/NPR with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert of Shostakovich, Ravel and Szymanowski that was webcast last night by NPR.) And I can think of no better introduction to him than a long profile by The New York Times critic and writer Daniel J. Wakin that appeared last weekend.
Where do you start to convey his personality? The fact that the 35-year-old French-Canadian native of Montreal is openly gay? The Tahitian Turtle Tattoo? The great reviews? The pumped-up chest that earned the short 5-5 conductor the nickname of Mighty Mouse from renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato? His quick rise to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the ranks of top, world-class orchestra conductors?
I doubt he will be known as Yanni, since Yanni is already reserved for the New Age composer, who also is often dubbed “Yawni.”
But the boyish conductor just might become a one-name celebrity – something like “Yannick” in the way that Bernstein was “Lenny.” He certainly projects that kind of intensity and he sure gets results.
You can make up your own mind about the man who hopes to rebuild the special “Philadelphia Sound” of Eugene Ormandy that relied on strings the way the Chicago Symphony Sound relied on brass.
Here is a link to the profile:
And here is a link to the archived webcast of last night’s concert in Carnegie Hall. Be sure to read the “Read More” button:
If you heard him, what did you think?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
One of the most interesting stories I heard about classical music in 2012 points yet again to a curious paradox.
Even while many First World audiences, as well as school programs, in Western Europe and North America seem to be turning their backs on classical music, that same classical music is thriving and blossoming in South America and Asia, and even in Africa (below is a double bass player in the Kinshasa Symphony).
Curiously, the greatest success often seems to come from the most unlikely source: The poor and undereducated young people and students, plus their families and friends, for whom the music takes on even more personal and cultural or social meaning.
One example is Gustavo Dudamel (below), the fiery and charismatic superstar conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel and “el sistema” in Venezuela, which trained him and gets countless young people into making classical music.
You may remember that on Christmas Day I touched on this same theme with a very moving video of poor young in Paraguay who are featured in the upcoming documentary “Landfill Harmonic” about poor students who recycle trash into instruments of musical beauty.
Here is a link to that posting:
And here is a link to the story, which aired on NPR in which Leonard Bernstein protégée and conductor Marin Alsop, who leads both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Orchestra in Brazil, discusses her exhilarating experience south of the border.
Those experiences include an outdoors concert for 20,000 (below) and taking the first South American orchestra ever invited to the famed British Proms concerts, where the crowds went wild. (At bottom is a YouTube video of Alsop and the Sao Paulo Orchestra playing encores at the 2012 Proms in Britain.)
Such beauty, meaning and enthusiasm are indeed contagious. Let us hope 2013 brings more of that same energy and devotion to beautiful music and a lifelong appreciation of it right here!
I found the story hopeful and inspiring, and I hope you do too:
ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on www.npr.org. Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/28/161964987/gustavo-dudamel-on-the-magic-of-stravinskys-crazy-music
By Jacob Stockinger
Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).
I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.
The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.
And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).
But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.
MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.
And I think for good reason.
One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.
I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.
It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.
The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.
The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.
But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.
What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.
If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.
It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.
Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.
So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?
The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.
I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?
Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.
But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them
Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.
By Jacob Stockinger
“You know, it is going to be hard to get good seats. This concert is really popular and has very sold well,” said the Overture Center’s box office agent when I went to exchange tickets to last weekend’s all-Gershwin concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra from Sunday afternoon to Friday night.
And she was right.
So I ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, with a somewhat limited vision of the soloists and especially of the full orchestra and chorus.
But one look backwards over my shoulder, out into beautiful Overture Hall, and I saw how packed the 2,200-seat hall was – and it was really packed. That is surely an enviable way to end a season on a high note.
Not that it was unexpected.
By now we all should know that MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) has a special talent for Gershwin. He is closely identified with the opera “Porgy and Bess.” His recording of it won a Grammy, and he has conducted it some 400 times all over the country, including at the City Opera in New York City from which it was broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”
While I don’t have exact attendance figures, it sure seems like houses were very good, even if the Sunday performance was a little under-attended because of Mother’s Day. One MSO player even commented that it was such a pleasure to play before a big and appreciative audience. So much for the terrific commercial success of closing out the season.
So artistically, how did the MSO do?
Well as you will see below, the critics, including The Ear, are pretty much unanimous in their judgments: the all-Gershwin concert was great artistic success for the MSO and DeMain as well as for the soloists and Madison Symphony Chorus.
How could it be otherwise?
That’s why Venezuelan-born and –trained superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Hi-Def international satellite broadcast of Gershwin. Why Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did one. Why Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did an all-Gershwin broadcast for New Year’s Eve on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” And it also why the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Sewell, opened this past season with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the young Russian virtuoso pianist Ilya Yakushev as the soloist.
So here is how the MSO’s all-Gershwin fete sounded to The Ear.
The orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus performed superbly and tightly and with all the tonal color and dance-like, bluesy rhythms that Gershwin demands, right down to the French taxi horns and Cuban percussion. They sounded balanced with convincing dynamics and a big sound.
The soloists were, for the most part, terrific and absolutely first-rate. DeMain knows how to pick singers, and they brought off the authentic Gershwin sound with infectious conviction. This music left you pleased, happy and satisfied. George Gershwin’s music seems one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can agree on these days.
I guess that’s good.
The first half of the concert was devoted to the popular shorter pieces: the “Cuban” Overture, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” The entire second half was devoted to an extremely well-constructed concert version, by orchestrator and arranger Richard Russell Bennett (below), of “Porgy and Bess” that reduced the four-hour opera to 40 minutes.
The singers, soprano Laquita Mitchell (below top) and baritone Michael Redding (below bottom), both did an outstanding job with the 40-minute concert version of the 4-hour opera “Porgy and Bess.” Redding especially brought out the characters of the roles he sang. He projected right off the stage and was rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.
My biggest disappointment – and it wasn’t all that big– came in the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed fittingly in a bright blue gown, pianist Martina Filjak (below) played the Rhapsody well. She sure has chops, but great interpretations require more than great chops. I found her technique too prominent. She seemed to bang it out at times when it could have used a subtler, softer and more seductive approach. This Gershwin work is more French than Russian, more Ravel than Rachmaninoff. She should listen to Oscar Levant’s old recording.
But what I am really left with is how my overall impression of Gershwin, to whom I previously had paid only passing attention, took shape.
I loved the Gershwin concert while I was in it. But as soon as I left it, I found the music did not stick with me except for some tunes and some lyrics. And it did not make me ask questions or leave me wanting more.
And that, in turn, tells me why Gershwin is so popular.
Gershwin (below), who died prematurely of a brain tumor at 38, was clearly a Tin Pan Alley composer. He composed some dozen Broadway musicals before he even took up writing music for the concert hall. And that experience shows.
There is an ease and naturalness about listening to a Gershwin tune. When the famous Burton Lane song asks “I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” who could possibly answer “Well, I don’t.” Gershwin’s songs are irresistible. They watch over you.
But if I compare the “Rhapsody in Blue” to, say, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 or Schumann’s Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I have no problem knowing which one I would and wouldn’t want to hear repeatedly, which one lacks development and depth, and which one has them.
The “Rhapsody in Blue” is engaging and exciting while it lasts, but then it is over. On the other hand, the other more substantial works may not be as easily digestible, but their nourishment is more sustaining and they continue to yield up insights on repeated hearings.
It’s not that Gershwin is a crossover or superficial composer, even though he is used in a lot of ads. As DeMain explained in his illuminating comments before the performances, Gershwin does indeed define an identifiably American sound. But let’s be honest: Gershwin’s American sound is closer to song masters George M. Cohan, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern than to composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
You can take Gershwin (below) out of Broadway. But, like the music of Leonard Bernstein – a Gershwin champion and DeMain mentor whose greatest and most beloved is theater music from “West Wide Story” and “Candide” – you can’t take Broadway out of Gershwin. And Broadway is nothing, if not popular.
Little wonder that we remember “An American in Paris” from Gene Kelly’s Hollywood choreography. And little wonder that even “Porgy and Bess,” a genuinely sincere attempt at serious concert music, got treated this last year to a controversial ADD makeover for today’s Broadway.
This love of Gershwin is here to stay.
What did others think?
Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:
Here is a Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:
Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:
Here is a review by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV and Channel3000.com:
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, it is just a few weeks or more before a lot of some major political events, all of them quite polarizing, contentious and controversial, get decided.
And curiously enough, classical music – which is normally left out of such major social events and political discussions – seems to be playing an important role right now.
And then there is the upcoming election in Russia where Vladimir Putin (below, riding brazenly beefcake and defiantly bare-chested) – often accused making his opponents “disappear” — hopes to return as President.
Of course music creeps into politics now and then. Recently, President Obama made headlines and videos that went viral when he crooned a few bars of Al Green and then later some blues with B.B. King and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.
But classical music and opera?
How do they figure all of a sudden in politics?
Could it be because so many of these extremist-type candidates turn to something more artistically traditional for validation and mainstream cultural acceptance?
Here are some stories to consider:
Mr. Blowhard Speaker Newt Gingrich isn’t doing very well in the polls and primaries. But his former aide, mistress and now third wife, Callista (below), is using music education as the theme she says she would champion as First Lady the same way that Michelle Obama is promoting healthy food and fighting childhood obesity:
Hugo Chavez is so anxious to have good press to retain almost dictatorial power that he is willing to co-opt the superb music education program in Venezuela – the same “el sistema” that brought us superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (seen below with Chavez) and the system’s famous founder Juan Antonio Abreu – and thereby to neutralize opposition from all the grateful young performers and audiences who benefit from the system he didn’t even start.
Here is a great New York Times story about him and them:
And here is a backgrounder about the success of El Sistema and the loyalty it inspire among its participants:
And then there are the mass demonstrations against former Russian president and KGB secret police agent Vladimir Putin, who seems about to pull off a shady return to power. But that doesn’t seem to prevent him from getting endorsements from some pretty big classical music stars including conductor Valery Gergiev (below top, shaking Putin hand at the recent Tchaikovsky competition) and sexy opera diva soprano Anna Netrebko (below bottom with Putin), who denies rumors that she had an affair with Putin (how operatic that would be!):
For background, try this:
I’ll bet there is more as elections draw closer and the American Presidential Election draws closer.
Do you have any more tips or ideas, suggestions or comments about music and current politics here or elsewhere?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, you won’t find a lot to linger over in this year’s classical music Grammys. After all, the “Academy,” as they call the Industry’s Enforcer, chopped the categories from 109 to 78 for the 54th annual competition. (Classical Music wasn’t the only category to lose a lot; so did quite a few ethnic music categories including Latin Jazz and Hawaiian Music.)
So the really big names in classical music are missing in this year’s bunch of classical Grammys – no Beethoven or Bach, no Mahler or Mozart, although superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) did win one with an outstanding performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony in digital download-only release.
NOTE: Today’s “LA Live in HD” broadcast at 4 p.m. at the Eastgate and Point cinemas features Dudamel conducting a performance from Caracas, Venezuela of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand.”)
But you will find more contemporary composers than in past years. In fact, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Florentine Opera Chorus took home two Grammys for their live performance of Robert Aldridge’s opera “Elmer Gantry,” based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis.
Nor will you find a lot of big name prestige labels, which have been largely replaced by smaller labels with more niche-like focuses.
But you will nonetheless find some great performances and some great music, including arias sung by the great American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
You will also find something of great local interest: Record producer Judith Sherman received her third Grammy, the second in a row and the third of seven nominations. And if you look at her long and impressive list of releases, she certainly seems worthy of winning.
Sherman’s Grammy is good news for Madison and for the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet, which performs a FREE concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 24, in the Wisconsin Union Theater. That’s because the Pro Arte has hired Sherman (below, in Mills Hall setting up microphones with the Pro Arte Quartet and pianist Brian Hsu for the December sessions to record composer Paul Schoenfield‘s Three Rhapsodies for String Quartet) to produce the 2-CD set of the world premiere commissions by Walter Mays, Paul Schoenfield, William Bolcom and John Harbison that the Pro Arte is performing during its centennial season.
That could mean that Sherman (seen below backstage at Mills Hall closely following and taking notes on the Schoenfield score during mike checks), who is a freelance producer working for Albany Records, might well end up next year appealing to the Grammy trends toward rewarding smaller labels and new music. And that, in turn, means that the Pro Arte Quartet’s 2-CD set might get nominated for a Grammy. Now, that would be grand and well deserved for the grueling 11 – and 12-hour recording sessions that she and the musicians turned in here over two days.
By the way, the program for the FREE March 24 concert by the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) at the Wisconsin Union Theater, by the way, include the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 with UW pianist Christopher Taylor; Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz”; Darius Milhaud’s String Quartet No. 7, which was written for and premiered by the Pro Arte (below, today) in 1925.
Also on the program is Mozart’s great and sublimely beautiful String Quintet in G minor (at bottom), K. 516, with guest violist Samuel Rhodes (below, in a photo by Peter Shaarf) of the Juilliard String Quartet.
You would pay a lot of money to hear those same performers in that same program in, say, New York City’s Carnegie Hall. But here in Madison it is FREE and easy to get to. So plan to attend that concert and take along family and friends. And spread the word.
For more information visit www.proartequartet.org
Anyway, here is the classical music list for the 54th annual Grammys:
Want to see who the accomplished and worthwhile “losers” were? Here is a link to all the nominees:
And here is a link to the blog post I did around the holidays with all the nominees and the music they performed (plus all the recordings the Producer nominees, including Sherman, worked on):
Here are links to some other analyses and documentaries:
mozart string quintet g minor
Alert: Gustavo meets Gustav again this Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Eastgate and Point Cinemas, when the “LA Phil Live in HD” broadcast features the 31-year-old superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) with the combined Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, plus soloists and choirs, performing Gustav Mahler‘s famous Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” Tickets are $20 for adults, $16 for children. For information, here is a link to a New York TImes story: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/arts/music/gustavo-dudamel-and-los-angeles-philharmonic-hailed-in-caracas.html?pagewanted=all
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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.
By John W. Barker
The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) has established such high standards of programming and performance that it is easy to take them for granted.
But their mid-season concert at The Gates of Heaven on last Sunday afternoon, Feb. 12, in the historic Gates of Heaven Synagogue (below) in James Madison Park was another opportunity to appreciate what musical riches they bring to us.
The program was a typical mixture of genres and national styles.
Two works for low stringed instruments provided focal points. One was played adroitly by Anton TenWolde (below, front left): an early example of a cello sonata, by the late-17th century Bolognese master Domenico Gabrielli (no relation to the Venetian Gabrielis: note difference in spelling!). The other was the third of Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba, given a bracing reading by Eric Miller.
On the vocal side, soprano Mimmi Fulmer and mezzo-soprano Consuelo Sañudo (below) joined in two examples of the small-scaled sacred pieces (with German texts) by Heinrich Schütz, with both blending of, and contrast between, their fine voices. Later, they took turns at the verses making up one of Lalande’s settings of the Latin Lamentations for Good Friday, powerfully emotional expressions of sacred anguish.
Climaxing each of the program’s two halves were demanding chamber works.
From François Couperin, one of the concerts from his set of Les Goûts-réunis (“The Tastes Reconciled”), endeavoring to reconcile the Italian style of Corelli with the French mode of ensemble writing. Violinist Edith Hines (below) had ample opportunity to shine in its eight contrasting movements.
And, as a grand finale, all the instrumentalists joined together (with harpsichordist Max Yount (below), the anchor throughout the entire program) for Marin Marais‘s extravagant fantasy on bell-pealing, the “Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont” (at bottom) wherein Hines and Miller brought further virtuosity to bear.
The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble was, from 1990, the pioneer regional group devoted to exploring early music and historical performance practices.
Its survival this long is one of the demonstrations of Madison’s exciting yet mature nurturing of literature beyond the conventional. We continue to be in the WBE’s debt.