By Jacob Stockinger
Oscar would no doubt say that movie soundtracks deserve special attention and serious consideration as art music.
And it would be hard to disagree with them.
Perhaps some would say that movies are the real operas of our day, except that the music plays a secondary or tertiary role.
Besides, more and more symphony orchestras are turning to concert programs that feature movie soundtracks, perhaps to attract new and younger audiences.
And radio stations seem to be mixing in and playing more and more movie music on their classical programs.
And more and more composers who aspired to be classical composers but who were forced earn a living in Hollywood –- Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) comes immediately to mind –- are being increasingly programmed for their classical fare as well as their commercial Hollywood work.
Besides, “crossover” and “fusion” are the key words of the day in the classical music scene, as you can see with the success of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (below top) and the “new tangos” by Astor Piazzolla (below bottom), to name but two examples.
So perhaps it is only natural that, in the run-up to the Academy Awards tonight, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence’ have featured several posts about the music that is featured in nominated movies, especially the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the late 110-year-old pianist (below, in photo by Yuri Dojc) who survived Auschwitz by playing music, especially the etudes of Frederic Chopin -– and who just died last week. (You can hear her speak and play the piano at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that has almost a million hits.)
The Ear suspects her story, “The Lady in Number 6,” will win the Oscar for short documentary because she was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust and was a testament to the power of music, and therefore of all art and beauty, over evil and adversity. She embodied hope — a cherished value.
Here is a link to her fascinating and detailed obituary in The New York Times:
So as you prepare to watch the live broadcast on ABC-TV tonight starting at 6 p.m. CST (it will also be streamed live), here are links to consider when you think about music and films.
Here is the link to a story about music and documentaries:
Here is an overview of several nominees, including William Butler (below) of Arcade Fire, for Best Score:
And here is a link to another story about quiet music – specifically, composer Alexandre Desplat and his score for “Philomena” starring Judi Dench (below) — and how hard it is to compose and perform:
By Jacob Stockinger
Tomorrow, on Sunday night, March 2, the annual Oscars, the 86th annual Academy Awards, will be given out starting at 6 p.m. CST on ABC-TV, which will also stream the awards broadcast live.
The Ear hopes that this time Oscar gets it right.
I recall one memorable year when they got it wrong.
That was in 2006 at the 78th annual Academy Awards.
Even the late, great and popular film critic Roger Ebert (below, in a photo by Vince Bucci), whose choices I usually admired and concurred with, got it wrong.
In 2006, two of the top contenders for Best Film were “Crash” and the heavily favored ‘Brokeback Mountain.”
“Crash” dealt with race and racial tensions in Los Angeles, and focused in interrelated stories that were well told and well acted by some fine names, including Thandie Newton (below left), Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon (below right) and Don Cheadle.
“Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by Annie Proulx that was first published in The New Yorker magazine, dealt with two young modern-day cowboys in Montana struggling to deal with and acknowledge their gay identity and their love for each other.
Late in the game, Roger Ebert came out in favor of “Crash” as the most deserving film to receive the Best Picture award. His influence may well have set the upset in motion.
But Ebert was wrong.
“Brokeback” deserved the honor. It was a moving film with great music and great cinematography. Most of all, its story and character study were very poignant and bittersweet, even heartbreaking. And it was masterfully acted by Jake Gyllenhaal (below left) and by the late Heath Ledger (below right).
Not that Crash wasn’t a fine film. It was. But race had been dealt with very well in a many other films over the years.
On the other hand, “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by the incomparable and eclectic Ang Lee, was a break-though work of art, a pioneering achievement that proved nothing less than revolutionary in the way it introduced gay subject matter and characters into mainstream Hollywood cinema in a sympathetic way.
And the current move of public opinion towards approving of marriage equality – or gay marriage or same-sex marriage – just goes to prove the point.
“Brokeback” did win three Oscars – but NOT the one for Best Picture, which went instead to “Crash,” a good movie but not a better movie than “Brokeback.”
But American composer Charles Wuorinen also found something inspiring in the story of two lonesome gay cowboys up on an isolated Montana mountain. So he asked the author to rework the story into an opera libretto while he went to work composing the music. (Below, in the title roles, are Tom Randle, left, and Daniel Okulitch, right):
The results are an opera based on the revised short story.
How good are the results?
Here is a balanced and insightful review of the opera’s world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain, from senior music critic Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times, who rightly thinks a love story calls for a little more singing and melody. He seems to be saying: Right story, wrong composer.
But more to the point, you can judge for yourself. You can now hear the opera FREE via streaming for another 60 days or so thanks to Medici TV. (You can get a taste in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Here is link to the story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” that features an interview with Proulx (below) and also give some background as well as a link to the opera broadcast on Medici.
Here is a link to the NPR story:
So let’s hope The Academy gets the right movies for the right awards Sunday night.
Here is a link to much more information about the Oscars.
And you can return here tomorrow where you will find more Oscar-related stories about music top serve as background before you tune into the always endless live broadcast with this years; host, Ellen DeGeneres –- an out lesbian whose appearance attests to the prescience of “Brokeback Mountain.”
By Jacob Stockinger
For quite some time now, NPR has featured “Tiny Desk Concerts” — classical, jazz, folk, roots music — during which major performers play live in the crowded NPR studio. They are easy to link to and stream over your computer or maybe even your TV set these days. (NPR books great guests, including, below bottom, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)
You can also find NPR links to and archives of other live performances -– often through radios stations such as WQXR-FM in New York City and WGBH in Boston –- and include a recital of live music in major halls and venues, including one of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin by the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall (below). And there are many, many others.
And now Deceptive Cadence seems to be acting like musical anthropologist. The time they went out “into the field” – that is, not in the usual venues and concert halls.
That’s not unheard of, of course. That is how the great composer Bela Bartok (below) started out as a musical anthropologist or ethnologist of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, and then used his research to morph into one of the pioneers of musical modernism. Chopin used Polish music like the mazurka to create a new Romanticism. And in American folk music, the musical anthropology of Alan Lomax is legendary.
Specifically, NPR went to the piano factory of Steinway and Sons in New York City and recorded the red-hot glam pianist Yuja Wang playing the fiercely difficult Toccata in D Minor, Op. 11, with all its hypnotic repetition of a single note, by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev on a brand new Steinway concert grand. (You can see and hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom. Don’t forget to click on the icon that is second from the right to enlarge the video image to fill your computer screen.)
The music and the physical virtuosity or dexterity is amazing to behold.
It is also kind of cute and informal to watch the diminutive figure of the glamorous Wang playing difficult cert music in a cold, wood-strewn and equipment-strewn warehouse in fingerless wool hobo gloves that go up her forearm –- but only after she uses the reflective fallboard above the keys to put on glossy lipstick and so complete her outfit of black fur-like boa, black stiletto heels and geometrically high fashion black-and-white dress.
Ah! Those tribal ceremonies and native attire!
Anyway, here is a link to the performance by Yuja Wang at the Steinway and Sons factory in the borough of Queens, not the usual Steinway showroom in Manhattan where most pianists test and choose pianos for their performances.
The Tiny Desk Concerts archive has lots of kinds of live performances.
For example, here is the famed Kronos Quartet (below) doing a recent Tiny Desk Concert featuring its latest recordings. Many other such concerts by other artists have been archived and are readily accessible:
And here is a link to the archive, with links to other older archives, of music Live in Performance housed at NPR. It includes chamber music, orchestral music (below is the Mideast peace-promoting Palestinian-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under co-founder and director Daniel Barenboim in Carnegie Hall), operas and recitals:
ALERT: If you are undecided about going to this afternoon’s concert at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with Norwegian trumpet soloist Tine Thing Helseth (below), here are links to positive reviews by John W. Barker for Isthmus and by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, when a holiday falls on a Friday – like Valentine’s Day this year — one can be forgiven for prolonging it over the weekend, don’t you think?
But it seems a good chance to blend two recent stories and trend lines that are increasingly coming together.
And coming out.
One is the recent various court victories for marriage equality, or same-sex marriage, or gay marriage. Whatever you want to call it, it seems to becoming more and more a legal and social reality with every week that passes.
And those legal victories lead to more and more gays and lesbians coming out, including the star football player and top NFL draft possibility star Michael Sam (below top) and “Juno” actress Ellen Page (below bottom).
Here is a link to a New York Times story about Michael Sam:
As for Valentine’s Day, imagine what how rewarding it could be to work cooperatively in the performing arts with your life partner and love.
NPR highlighted various musical couples in classical music who met in a musical setting and fell in love while working, and who now get to work together.
And for good measure, they included the Metropolitan Opera star soprano Patricia Racette (below top, out of costume, and below bottom in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca”), who openly talks about what a great marriage she has with her female partner. (You can hear Patricia Racette as the title character Cio-Cio-San sing the finale of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)
Of course, most of the couples are heterosexual in the story just as they are in real life. And we have seen some of them – tenor Stephen Costello (below top) at the Madison Opera‘s Opera in the Park as well as cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han (below bottom) at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in Madison.
But it is both sensitive and brave of NPR, which is always under the gun and budget knife of the self-righteous and nutty right-wing extremists and homophobes, to do the story.
Here is a link:
One can only hope and imagine the chain reaction that is to happen as each coming out brings several more, as bravery and tolerance build, and as the visible becomes visible.
Saint Valentine -– at least my Saint Valentine — would be very pleased.
By Jacob Stockinger
What is the best way to listen to classical music?
How can you get the most out of what you are listening to?
One way is not to use the music as wallpaper – as background music to brunch or some other social event or personal task.
But even if you give the music your full attention, what is the best way to get the most of out of your listening?
The Ear suspects that a lot of people — especially performing musicians and composers — have a lot of different answers.
Tsioulcas lists and elaborates on four ways to turn your listening experience into a richer and more informative as well as enjoyable experience.
Here is a link:
Of course many of us have learned other lessons in listening over the years.
The Ear, for example, would suggest not always comparing the performance you are listening now to the first or favorite performance of the same work that you heard live or recorded long ago and grew to love. Otherwise you are more likely to overlook whatever originality the new performer you are listening to brings to the score.
For example, comparing all Chopin performances today to those by Arthur Rubinstein (below top) or Vladimir Horowitz (below second) might cause you to overlook what some of the new young Chopinists like Daniil Trifonov (below third) and Jan Lisiecki (below bottom, in a photo by Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon) bring with them, as I will explain further in another posting.
The same goes for orchestral, chamber music, vocal music and opera performances: Try to remain open to newness and difference.
But different kinds of music an instruments might even demand different approaches to listening, as the deaf but acclaimed and popular percussionist Evelyn Glennie explains in a widely circulated YouTube video about whole body listening at the bottom.
Do you have suggestions or tips about listening to classical music that might help others? Share them in the COMMENTS section.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear’s friends at the Madison Symphony Orchestra have sent in the following announcement:
“Can you name all the different distinctly American choral traditions?
“Director Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and the Madison Symphony Chorus will answer that question this Sunday afternoon, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m., when they’ll appear in “Apple Pie America: A Slice of Choral Americana” in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts. (Taylor is also the head of the choral department at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directs the UW Choral Union and UW Concert Choir, and is the assistant conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. And sorry, I have so specific titles of works on the program but I have been told that the concert is closing in on being sold-out, with only a few tickets remaining.)
Many of the works will be accompanied by Madison Symphony Orchestra principal pianist Daniel Lyons (below).
Tickets are $15, and are available at http://madisonsymphony.org/Americana or at the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or 201 State Street.
Formed in 1927, the Madison Symphony Chorus (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance in 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since.
It was featured at the popular Madison Symphony Christmas concerts in December, and it will be joined by four soloists for the MSO’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem on April 4, 5 and 6.
The Chorus is comprised of more than 125 volunteer musicians from all walks of life who enjoy combining their artistic talent, and new members are always welcome. Visit http://madisonsymphony.org/chorus for more information.
CATCHING UP WITH THE GRAMMY WINNERS
Last Sunday was the Grammy Awards.
Here is a complete list of the nominees and the winners. It makes for a good listening list or buying list.
WINNER Roomful Of Teeth
78. BEST CLASSICAL VOCAL SOLO
80. BEST CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL COMPOSITION
By Jacob Stockinger
Beethoven (below) would have approved.
And no doubt he would have been very, very happy.
And sure enough, all around the world, in many different cultures, Beethoven’s Ninth has found a place as an emblem of those aspirations. During the Pinochet Years, it was sung by Chilean women outside the walls of prisons where political activists were being tortured — the men could hear them and took heart from their singing,
Of course Hitler also appropriated the Ninth too. But then Leonard Bernstein used it to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany. And protesting Chinese students (below) in the Tiananmen Square uprising where they rebelled to strains of the Ninth coming out of loudspeakers.
The Ear wonders if it was played anywhere in the Mideast or Northern Africa during the Arab Spring?
I particularly like the way the Japanese sing it out loud en masse – in German no less — as a rite of ushering in the coming New Year. (Below is a photo of 10,000 Japanese singing the “Ode to Joy” as a huge stadium choir that spent months studying and rehearsing the music and the German language.)
As a ritual, it is kind of like dancing waltzes in Vienna or watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City, only a lot more soulful, beautiful and personal in the public’s involvement and its own cultural meaning. (You can hear for yourself the Japanese stadium concert of singing “Ode to Joy” finale of the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom. It has had about 1.5 million hits and is pretty impressive and moving to experience even in a audio-video recording.)
Here is the story that I first heard about the movie documenting Beethoven’s Ninth — “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” — around the world on NPR. It moved The Ear and I hope it moves you. I also hope someone out there knows if or when it is scheduled to play in Madison and will let the rest of us know the dates.
The film also redeems all the baloney we hear about classical music being outdated and old-fashioned and elitist and so on ad nauseam. Other music would be damn lucky to get even close to this kind of universality, significance and appreciation.
By Jacob Stockinger
No doubt about it, “Downton Abbey” has become a global television drama phenomenon. Fans of the new season, which started two weeks ago, are eagerly looking forward to the third installment of the new season that will air this Sunday night on PBS (and Wisconsin Public Television at 8 p.m. CST).
Just how seriously “Downton Abbey” writers and producers also take the show could be seen in last week’s episode. There is where a side plot and secondary character -– a special gala performance by the Australian opera diva Dame Nellie Melba – was taken seriously. Where should she stay? was one issue. Another was whether a performing artist like Melba, who had been privately hired for a small command performance in the salon (below) should eat with the servants and help or with the aristocratic landowners?
And how many of you realized that Nellie Melba was played by the New Zealand opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (below)? The Ear sure didn’t, but now he knows why the singing of Puccini arias and Dvorak songs sounded so good.
In fact, the historical episode was taken so seriously that NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” this week posted a primer on just how important, acclaimed and controversial the real Nellie Melba (below, in a photo taken around 1900, and singing at the bottom in a YouTube was) really was.
Here is a link to Episode 2 of Season 4 that aired last week on “Masterpiece Theatre” and can be streamed via the Internet or viewed in an encore broadcast this Sunday night at 7 p.m. CST:
Here is a link to the NPR story about Nellie Melba and the episode:
By Jacob Stockinger
By now you have probably heard the good news:
The lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra (below, playing with its Grammy-nominated conductor Osmo Vanska who has resigned) is over. It was ended by an agreement, long sought after and long disputed, between the musicians and the administration.
Here are several stories about the ending of the unfortunate situation that even led the superb and acclaimed conductor Osmo Vanska to resign. (You can hear Osmo Vanska’s farewell speech in a YouTube video at the bottom, in which he plays with the musicians an performs the “Valse Triste” or Sad Waltz of his fellow Finn Jean Sibelius as a final encore. The sadness of him, the musicians, the audience and the music is palpable.)
And here is a reaction story from NPR about what’s next that “All Things Considered“:
Here is a story from The New York Times about the same situation followed by another summary:
Of course, the Minnesota Orchestra is just one of several American orchestras that faced serious financial crises. You may recall that last year saw problems for other orchestras, and the New York City Opera (below, with its final production, the world premiere of “Anna Nicole”) even went bankrupt.
Yet one longtime and perceptive observer of the classical scene – New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini – see good news amid the rules and dire predictions.
Here is a column he wrote recently about “The Lessons of 2013” for classical music. In his column he doesn’t downplay the many difficulties, which mostly concern finances and smaller, aging audiences. But he does suggest that if you take a longer view, the future of classical music doesn’t look quite so bleak or dismal.
Read it and see what you think and whether you agree. Then tell The Ear by sending in your remarks in the COMMENT section of this blog: