By Jacob Stockinger
It is time to play some more catch-up.
This past season was so busy with local events that I often had to overlook other important or interesting news in the world of classical music.
One of them us that the photogenic American violinist Joshua Bell (below) – himself a heart-throb superstar who always sells out the house – started his tenure as the new music director, concertmaster and conductor of the British chamber music orchestra The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Bell took his first chair and took up his baton last September with an initial contract of three years. He succeeds the American pianist Murray Perahia, who resides in London and led the group from 2000 to 2010.
Bell is the latest conductor to take over the ASMF group (below) from others director including Iona Brown, Kenneth Sillito and the famous founder Sir Neville Mariner, who made more than 500 recordings with the ASMF.
Marriner, by the way, is now 89 but is still the Life Director of ASMF, which gave its inaugural concert in 1959 with 12 players, all male.
Anyway, The Ear finds the first release by Bell and ASMF extremely satisfying.
Contrary to what you might expect, the new recording does NOT feature a violin concerto as a chance for Bell to show case his talents.
Instead it offers two Beethoven symphonies: the famous one is No. 7, said to be the favorite of many Beethoven-philes, including The Ear. (The famous second movement, done by Bell and the ASMF, is in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
The release couples that famous work with the Symphony No. 4, which is underappreciated and under-performed, coming in between the famous Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the most famous No. 5.
In both cases, Bell turns in exacting, if mainstream rather than revolutionary, performances full of balance, energy, sharp attacks and releases and precise rhythms as well as great singing lyricism – all the qualities one expects from great violin or string playing. Plus, I like the chamber scale and the emphasis on counterpoint and dialogue.
And from what my ears tell me, Bell favors brisk rhythms that keep you engaged, but they are not rushed.
All in all, I find it a very listenable album, one I have returned to again and again – and expect you will too.
Are these definitive performances? Well, The Ear long ago gave up on the idea of a definitive performance, which is and should be an impossibility in music and in art in general. Definitiveness would kill off the very qualities of originality and liveliness we most value in art.
But suffice it to say that these performance by Joshua Bell and The Academy strike me as among the most appealing you will find.
You have fine but never fussy interpretations of a well-picked program in which Beethoven (below) seems allowed to speak for himself in the both extroverted and introspective moods represented by these two contrasting symphonies And the sound engineering is terrific in providing transparency and scale.
All in all, I would not be surprised to see this recording nominated for a Grammy or other international awards.
And I also suspect The Academy made a very smart and populist choice in bringing such a high-profile but versatile and seemingly unpretentious player as Joshua Bell – who wrote his own liner notes about the music and these performances as well as his new role as the leader of ASMF. He may well attract younger audiences and inexperienced audiences — which all classical music groups are now trying to do.
Here is a link to the group’s website:
And here is a link to an essay a by Joshua Bell on why classical music should not be stuffy. It is a fine read:
Do you have an opinion about Joshua Bell?
Do you have a favorite Beethoven symphony and Beethoven interpreter?
And do you have a favorite recording by ASMF (I still treasure the now out-of-print recording of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade for Strings coupled with Grieg’s charming suite “In Holberg’s Time.”)
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Today, Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day – or Decoration Day, as it used to be known when solders’ graves were marked with more flowers and flags, and fewer words and less rhetoric.
Music is such a profound part of our memories, of how we celebrate events and people.
So once again, The Ear asks: For you, what classical music best celebrates Memorial Day?
Here are links to some past years of my suggestions and suggestions – including music by J.S. Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Samuel Barber and so many others — from readers, found in the COMMENTS section:
And last year I linked to a great story about Taps that was done on NPR:
Here is another link to another NPR story that features a moving aria of elegiac music by Henry Purcell:
And here is yet another NPR story that features some wonderful links to appropriate music – including Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and John Adams’ “The Wound Dresser,” based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (below), who was a hospital nurse during the American Civil War.
It also mentions and uses an audio clip of one of my favorites, “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below), which dedicates each movement to a different friend who had been killed in World War I, even while the music remains quietly wistful of earlier times and does not wear its heart if its sleeve.
I also find Ravel’s “Pavane pour une princesse defunte” (at bottom, played in a live concert recording so reservedly and so movingly by the great Sviatoslav Richter, despite the audience’s coughing) in a YouTube video) a poignant, bittersweet and very moving expression of sadness and nostalgia, especially in the original solo piano version which seems more intimate and introspective in its aloneness, rather than orchestral version:
So once again I ask: For you personally, what music best embodies and expresses Memorial Day?
Leave those suggestions and links in the COMMENTS section.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
This coming Wednesday, May 29, marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” by the 20th century master Igor Stravinsky (below at about the time of “The Rite.”).
You may remember that its sensational premiere in Paris in 1913, which also ushered in modern dance as well as modern music, was conducted by Pierre Monteux, caused a literal riot in the concert hall at the Theatre of the Champs Elysees. (Below are the dancers of the Ballets Russes who performed the original 1913 choreography by the famed Nijinsky and a video of the opening from the Joffrey Ballet‘s recreation of the original production.)
A century later, the ballet score remains a shockingly visceral, raw, convulsive and heart-pounding work that has lost none of its impact. It is, like late Beethoven string quartets — I believe it was Stravinsky himself who made the observation about Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” – forever modern.
Miles Hoffman recently discussed “The Rite” on NPR within the very varied and very long career of Stravinsky, and how Stravinsky (below, in a photo by Richard Avedon) was musical chameleon who constantly pushed his art and evolved his sense of style in different directions.
Hoffman, himself a performing musician (a violist) and a fine writer, compared Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso for the range and diversity of his experimentation and the masterful results.
Certain, the range of Stravinsky (1882-1971) is worth considering even as record labels are issuing special centennial editions and performances of “The Rite of Spring.”
What, one wants to ask, about the neo-Classical Stravinsky? Or the 12-tone Stravinsky? The contrasting styles are all so central to understanding his career. (I love the earlier Stravinsky of “Rite” and “The Firebird” but I adore the Neo-Classical Stravinsky and admire the courage that it took for the ever-morphing composer to buck his modernist colleagues.)
And the often repeated comparison to Picasso is especially appropriate given that the two prolific and protean ever-changing artists knew each other and even had a bet on who would live the longest. (Picasso, who lived from 1881 to 1973, won the bet.)
Here is a link to the NPR piece, which features audio samples and which I highly recommend you listen to and not just read:
Here is a piece to another NPR piece, “A Cocktail Party Guide to Stravinsky,” complete with audio and video samples, from Tom Huizenga.
And here is a third NPR piece that features sound clips and the 48-year-old Leonard Bernstein (below) in an electrifying and thrilling performance of the difficult but thrilling score to “Le Sacre du Printemps” with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966:
Finally, here is anther comprehensive NPR piece done by Tom Vitale that aired Saturday on Weekend Edition host Scott Simon:
Meanwhile here in a YouTube video is the part of “The Rite of Spring” that always seems my ears like the soundtrack to an Aztec heart sacrifice — well, it is about pagan Russia — with its incredible use of slashing strings, pounding percussion, spooky winds and brass, and propulsive off-beats.
What careful mastery, craft and precision went into something so physical, so visceral, so emotive! There is a lesson there for advocates of passionate art who mistake sincere confession for careful craft!
By Jacob Stockinger
Henri Dutilleux was clearly a modernist, but not a militant or revolutionary modernist, who was known for his use of color and harmony. Like much of traditional French culture in general, he had a deep appreciation for formal beauty -– for melody, for structure, for clarity.
Here is his 1976 string quartet “Ainsi la nuit” (Thus the Night) in a YouTube video:
But even though he found critical acclaim, he never found widespread favor or popularity with the general public in the U.S. and around the world.
That is too bad.
The Ear very much likes Dutilleux’s work – his symphonies, his chamber music and his solo piano music (such as the Piano Sonata performed in a YouTube video at the bottom by his wife Genevieve Joy, who died at 90 in 2009). In fact I much prefer it to the much more famous and more frequently performed music by the 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was too Catholic, too mystical and religious, too self-consciously spiritual and aggressively dissonant and percussive for my taste.
Even as I am writing this, Wisconsin Public Radio is airing Dutilleux’s early Symphony No. 1.
It strikes me that Dutilleux (below, seen earlier in his career in 1959, in a photo by Ed Fitzgerald), who chided himself for not being prolific, worked in the great tradition of French refinement and craft, composing in the shadow of Maurice Ravel (who studied with Gabriel Faure, a family friend of Dutilleux’s father), that famous “watchmaker” musician.
So here are some of the best remembrances and obituaries to appear so far, though curiously I have not found a great piece from the French press (if you find one, please leave a link or reference).
Here is a great overview from NPR’s wonderful classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence”:
As always, The New York Times provides a terrifically detailed and comprehensive overview of the composer’s life and career:
And here is along and detailed piece from the British newspaper The Guardian:
And a shorter obit from the Los Angeles Times:
And here is an obit from the New York City radio station WQXR FM that features conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below) discussing Dutilleux’s music along with an audio sample of his orchestral music:
If you don’t know Henri Dutilleux’s music, I particularly recommend an all-Dutilleux record of solo piano music (the cover is below) by the Harvard University professor, pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, who often appears at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, on the ECM Records label.
What are your favorite works by Henri Dutilleux, and what remembrances of anecdotes do you have to tell and leave in the COMMENTS section?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Over the years I saw cellist Janos Starker (below) perform live several times in concert, both recitals and concertos, and I have a few of his recordings. He died last week at 88 in a nursing home after a long illness.
Starker was quite the legendary character, an original who loved his Scotch and cigarettes. He was also one of the best cellists ever as well as one of the most demanding music teachers ever. He did not suffer fools gladly. His repertoire was enormous and covered everything from Bach and Beethoven to Schumann, Dvorak and Brahms to Elgar, Kodaly and Hindemith,
How much I liked hearing Starker’s readings of solo Bach! They thoroughly absorbed me and held my attention. His playing of Bach simply would not let me go.
I don’t care so much about the historical origins of the music. I like my Bach (below) to have more profundity and lyricism than many early music groups often give him, but I also like more lightness and dance-like qualities than many of the more heavy Romantic interpreters give him.
Starker, who was all business, always took a more austere approach characterized by less vibrato – something that anticipated one of the signatures of the historically informed period performances of Bach.Which is to say: Starker, like me, like his Bach deep.
To me that seems only fitting for someone who survived the Nazi death camps and who saw his two violinist brothers murdered in them.
I like that after World War II, when he came to the U.S. and taught at Indiana University, Starker said he was put on Earth to teach.
I also like that once he left Europe, he went from being Schtarker (as in his native Hungary) to the starker Americanized pronunciation Starker.
I especially like his deep, dark Bach. It is deep and dark without being overly resonant to be point of becoming cloying, ponderous and gooey, which is how I sometimes find Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach. Nor was it superficial and court dancy as some early music is. Even in his secular music, there is so much more to Bach than the charm and the notes — and Starker got to it.
Starker’s Bach was somehow serious and even spiritual without being reverential. It was emotional without becoming sentimental.
Can you think of a better measure for making great music?
Here are some of the best obituaries and histories about Janos Starker the man and the musician I found over the past several days. They have some wonderful stories and details to savor.
Here is an obituary from The New York Times:
Here is another overview with los of details about his career:
Be sure to leave your own impressions, critiques, remembrances and tributes in the COMMENTS section.
And here is Starker playing the first movement from the Suite No.1 for solo cello by J.S. Bach in a YouTube video, showing once again how Starker spoke best for himself through his playing:
By Jacob Stockinger
In case you haven’t already heard, the great British conductor and longtime music director of the London Symphony Orchestra Sir Colin Davis (below) died last Sunday at 85 after a brief illness.
The news came unexpected to The Ear as Davis seemed actively involved in conducting almost up to the end. He seemed to have the stamina that would take him well into his 90s – especially since the aerobic act of conducting seems conducive to conductors have long careers and lives.
But then again, the obituaries make it clear that he suffered deeply from the death of his wife.
I never heard him live. But I loved his recorded performances –- and he recorded prolifically with some 250 albums to his credit. In the works of Sibelius and Berlioz he was a stalwart champion and acclaimed master. He also championed British composers such as Edward Elgar, William Walton and Benjamin Britten.
But I also liked his complete command of the Classical era-style in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven – symphonies, concertos, operas, oratories and other choral works. (Below is the cover of his recording on the London Symphony Orchestra‘s own in-house label LSO Live of the Berlioz Requiem.)
Sir Colin earned fame and a fine living early on (below) in the 1950s and 1960s. But I especially liked that his career seemed to peak late in his life –- a good riposte to the cultural tendency today to worship prodigies and young achievers. He was never better than when his hair turned white.
There is also something endearing and Britty eccentric about Davis who liked to sit in a chair and think about musical interpretations while he was puffing on his pipe and knitting.
And in his stage performances and touring, and it sounds to The Ear as if Sir Colin led a very good and very full life. Which may help explain why Sir Colin’s music-making sounded so healthy and robust and natural rather than neurotic or forced. (Below is a photo of Sir Colin at his home.)
Anyway, here are links to some of the best stories, remembrances and obituaries I found along with a fitting YouTube video of Sir Colin conducting Mozart’s Requiem at the bottom):
Here is a comprehensive and compassionate overview of Sir Colin’s life and career from NPR’s always outstanding blog “Delayed Cadence”:
And here is a story from Sir Colin’s native UK:
Here is a link to BBC report:
Here is a link to report from The New York Times:
And here is a story from another UK source, The Guardian:
Here is a report from the UK wire service Reuters:
Did you hear Sir Colin live? What did you think?
Do you have a favorite recording?
A word of tribute about Sir Colin to leave in the COMMENTS section?
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Classical music organizations of all kinds are wondering what they can do to foster a better appreciation of the arts and to put the performing arts on a more solid financial footing with broader public and political acceptance.
Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below top), who, in addition to his world-wide career as a recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist, has also been a creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and who has performed with the eclectic Silk Road Ensemble (below bottom), thinks he has the answer.
And the Harvard-educated Ma, who describes himself as a “venture culturalist” revealed his view about the need for diversity and his Three Big Ideas recently in the Nancy Hank Lecture on Arts Advocacy Day in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. He linked and emphasized the role of the arts in all education and in economic development.
Here is a link with a story and a video of the complete speech. Spread the word and share it — his remarks deserve it:
Be sure to read some of the readers’ comments, which I find most enlightening –- especially the story about and quote by Winston Churchill.
ALERTS: Tomorrow, on Monday, April 1,at 8:30 p.m. and also on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. in short concerts in Morphy Hall, the works of student composers at the UW-Madison will be performed. The concert is free and open to the public. Also, on Monday night at 7 p.m., the student orchestra (below) from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., will perform at St. Luke’s (NOT Mark’s as I mistakenly wrote at first) Lutheran Church in Middleton. The group, which has toured four continents and played on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” will perform the Overture to Mozart‘s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the first movement of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” for violin and viola; and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Admission is a free-will offering.
By Jacob Stockinger
As always, it is a great time to acknowledge and listen to the great music that has been written with the highest Christian holiday as inspiration.
That can mean of course Johann Sebastian Bach and his Cantatas and Passions (below is the Passion Chorale from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”) as well as the B Minor Mass.
Appropriate music for Easter can also mean other composers from other periods from Mozart and Haydn in the Classical era to Liszt and Dvorak, Wagner and Mahler (below in a YouTube video is the final movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”), in the Romantic era to an early modernist like Francis Poulenc. And of course there is much more in all eras, especially the pre-Baroque.
Or course most, if not all, the religiously themed works were done by composers who were Christian or who converted to Christianity.
But when it comes to more contemporary works, especially by non-Christian composers, one can get stuck or baffled.
So some recent postings on National Public Radio (NPR) about the Jewish Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov (below) and his “Passion According to St. Mark” (at bottom) is all the more timely and informative.
Here is an interview NPR did with the celebrated and popular contemporary composer:
And here is a link to 5 excerpts from other memorable Passion music that NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence” featured on Good Friday:
And finally here is a link a short interview with Golijov about the work plus a complete performance of Golijov’s work that was performed in Carnegie Hall and can be heard by streaming through the famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City:
I wish a Happy and Joyous Easter to all of you who celebrate it.
What is your preferred classical music to listen to on this important religious holiday?
ALERT: On Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen,” which airs live statewide tomorrow, on Sunday, March 10, from 12:30 to 2 p.m., the Lawrence Chamber Players (below) from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, will perform. The faculty string ensemble will consist of violins, viola, cello, bass, piano and classical guitar. The Lawrence Chamber Players will perform music by Miroslav Tadic and Astor Piazzolla as well as the famed Brahms Piano Quintet.
By Jacob Stockinger
Last week, in a popular posting, The Ear offered obituaries for the American superstar classical pianist Van Cliburn, who died of bone cancer at 78.
Here is a link to that initial post:
Since then many more obituaries, features and analyses have appeared.
NPR asked pianists who have won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Competition -– where several months ago Cliburn (below, performing in 1993) made his last public appearance — to remember the namesake, who emerges once again as a modest, gracious and warm personality as well as world-class pianist.
The medalists such as Olga Kern (below top), Jon Nakamatsu (below middle), Andre–Michel Schub and Joyce Yang (below bottom) have their own big names and reputations now, and they mention specific performances and specific piano pieces, some of the memories and accounts are quite moving and emotionally stirring.
The blog posting also feature some of Cliburn’s best recordings as well as one of the medalists’ own playing:
See for yourself and maybe leave a memory of your own here or on the NPR blog or, thanks to copying and pasting on both:
And here are more obituaries and commentaries:
From the blog “Music Beat” at The Voice of America:
From the Dallas-Morning news with information about where to send memorial gifts and donations:
From the New York Times, that places Cliburn within his outstanding generation of American contemporaries, sort of the Leonard Bernstein of the Piano in terms of changing the debate from Europe and Russia to America:
For a view from abroad, here is the obit from The Guardian in Great Britain:
An analysis about how Cliburn’s live-in friend was treated and how the issue of Cliburn’s being gay and the subject of a palimony suit was ignored or finessed:
How the LGTB magazine The Advocate treated The Gay Van Cliburn:
How the LGBT Washington Blade reported on the gay side of Van Cliburn:
There are many more. Just go to Google and plus in Van Cliburn obituaries or “Van Cliburn and homosexuality.”
And here is a wonderful video and audio remembrance put together by PBS’ The Newshour and arts reporter Jeffrey Brown: