The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Martha Argerich team up for unforgettable, compelling performances of two late Mozart concertos in a new Deutsche Grammophon release.

March 7, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is pretty sure that Deutsche Grammophon has some more recordings “in the can,” as they say, by the late and universally acclaimed Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (below, leading the Orchestra Mozart), who died last month at 80.

Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart

And the same make hold true for the legendary Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich -– often dubbed the female Vladimir Horowitz for her blazing technique, involving and individualistic interpretations and unpredictability -– who has been seriously ill and may be approaching the end of her career.

martha argerich hands in air

But it is curious, and reassuring, to see how so many aging musicians turn late in life to the music of Mozart. It happened with pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, both of whom generally focused on the Romantic repertoire. And I am sure there are many, many more examples.

But you would be hard put to find more convincing examples than the two Mozart piano concertos with Abbado and Argerich, plus the Orchestra Mozart, that was released this week by Deutsche Grammophon. You can hear some compelling samples in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich Mozart CD cover

That these two musicians were compatible we know from their long partnership — they are seen below together in the 1960s — and their early and frequent collaborations on Beethoven, Chopin Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.

Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich in 1960s

Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado young BW

But who was waiting for Mozart to be next? Not The Ear.

But it works. Oh boy, does it work.

Argerich, who is known for impetuousness, here seems the model of restraint without being timid. She plays strongly and with assurance, but with the complete transparency and clarity that great Mozart playing demands. Mozart’s music offers no room to hide, but then Argerich doesn’t need any.

Martha Argerich, Piano

The same holds for Claudio Abbado, who was at home in grand opera and big symphonic scores by Mahler as well as Beethoven, Schubert and so many others. But his Mozart here is also a model of clarity, with the various orchestral parts emerging clearly to hold dialogues with the many piano parts that Argerich brings out.

Claudio Abbado

It is an interesting match of repertoire.

The Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, is Mozart’s biggest symphonic effort in the genre of piano concertos – he composed 27 piano concertos — and it is perfectly suited to Argerich’s bigger-than-life playing.

But how she brings out Mozart’s lovely aria-like voices, melodies and harmonies. Her playing is all about poetic and natural sounding deconstruction through inflection and articulation, her accents paralleling and underscoring passages in the orchestra. Such heartbreaking simplicity combined with such effortless complexity -– that is the fusion Mozart we hear here.

Mozart old 1782

Similarly, in the darker and more well-known Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, Argerich is all color and drama as well as clarity. Interestingly, she uses different and atypical cadenzas -– two by Ludwig van Beethoven and one by Argerich’s teacher Friedrich Gulda.

Now there are a lot of wonderful Mozart piano concertos out there in Recording World, including those by Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel. So there is no point arguing whether these readings are definitive.

Increasingly, in fact, the Ear thinks the whole idea of definitive performances is not only illusory, but also antithetical and even counterproductive to the whole point of the performing arts.

But I can say this: Judging by the pleasure that the readings continue to give me, these two recording are riveting and MUST-HEAR recordings for serious Mozart fans, for serious piano fans and for serious fans of Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich — two of the 20th century’s titanic talents in classical music.

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Classical music Q&A: Pianist Yefim Bronfman, who mixes power and poetry, talks about his stamina and the two piano concertos he will perform during this weekend’s all-Beethoven concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

March 4, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

He may not yet be a household name like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz or Van Cliburn, but pianist Yefim Bronfman (below) — a prolific recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber music partner — commands great respect from critics and his fellow musicians.

Yefim Bronfman portrait

And with good reason.

“Fima,” as he known to friends and even his loyal followers, possesses a technique that other pianists envy plus a total commands of style, ranging from early period works through Romanticism and Modernism to new music.

He also is renowned for his stamina and power, but, at the same time, for subtle playing without banging. Combining power and poetry seems to be his signature.

Yefim Bronfman hansd in air

Here is a link to his website with his full biography — he emigrated to Israel from his native Tashkent — and critical reviews plus a discography, sound samples and other information:

http://www.yefimbronfman.com

People in the Madison area can hear Yefim Bronfman’s talents for themselves this weekend. That is when he joins the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain in a MUST-HEAR all-Beethoven program.

Bronfman will play the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19, AND the famous Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, also known as  “The Emperor.” Also on the program are the Symphony No. 1 in C Major, and “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture that Beethoven incorporated into his epic Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $16.50-$82.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples of the various pieces and of playing by Bronfman, visit:

http://madisonsymphony.org/bronfman

For program notes by MSO trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allman, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1314/6.Mar14.html

Yefim Bronfman recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

Yefim Bronfman playing a concerto

You are known for your stamina and power, as your cycle of the complete sonatas and concertos by Sergei Prokofiev and this Madison Symphony Orchestra concert with two Beethoven concertos prove. Are there special tricks or secrets you have to cultivate that kind of “marathon” playing and also avoid injury? Or is it just a natural gift?

It certainly helps to be in good physical shape, but recitals require the same kind of stamina and no one really questions that. Playing two concertos is actually less effort than playing a full solo recital.

Yefim Bronfman emotional

What are your current plans and future projects, both for live concerts and recordings, especially of works by living composers?

I just played a lot of new music in a chamber program with members of the New York Philharmonic, including the world premiere of a solo piano piece written for me by Marc Neikrug and a trio commissioned by Carnegie Hall several years ago by Marc-Andre Dalbavie. In Asia, on tour with the New York Philharmonic, we performed the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Magnus Lindberg (below, in a  photo by Saara Vuorkjoki), which is a co-commission with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Gothenburg Symphony of Sweden. (Editor’s note: Bronfman’s recording of it was nominated for a Grammy Award.)

I’m always on the lookout for talented composers. My natural curiosity makes me wonder about the language of composers of today who often give me ideas that contribute to playing the music of composers who are no longer alive.

Magnus Lindberg Saara Vuorjoki

You frequently perform Beethoven concertos and have made outstanding recordings of them with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on the Arte Nova budget label. What would you like to say to the general public about Beethoven (below), about his Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 5, the “Emperor”?

These two pieces belong to very different worlds. The first one belongs to the Mozartean period of Beethoven, very classical in structure and texture. But a lot happened between concertos No. 2 and No. 5.

They come from a composer with a great deal of desire to experiment, so those two concertos are like works of two different composers. Yet we never stop to wonder at the genius of someone able to do that. (At bottom is a YouTube video in which Yefim Bronfman, as Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and conductor Alan Gilbert discuss the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos they performed together.)

Beethoven big

I first heard you here years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Do you have any special memories of or thoughts about Madison?

Madison and this particular theater have some wonderful memories from my youth because I played here some of the earliest concerts of my career. Playing Beethoven 1 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Madison could have been one of the first Beethoven 1’s I ever performed.

What advice would you give today to young pianists and young musicians in general about pursuing a career in music? And how can classical music reach more young people and new audiences?

Arts and culture in general enrich our lives, and we have to give that understanding to the young generation. Without it our lives diminish greatly, and we have to learn to cherish what past artists have left to us.

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Classical music: How should you listen? Try these four ways to get the most out of classical music. Then tell us your own.

February 8, 2014
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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?

listening to music

One way is not to use the music as wallpaper – as background music to brunch or some other social event or personal task.

It is also probably not a good idea to multi-task, to listen while watching TV or a DVD, or reading a book.

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.

But one of the best is the short essay by Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for the exceptional classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” that is featured regularly on NPR.

anastasia tsioulcas

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:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/28/267777013/4-ways-to-hear-more-in-music

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.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Vladimir Horowitz

danill trifonov 1

Jan Lisiecki CR Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon

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.

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Classical music: Happy New Year! Viennese waltzes for orchestra by the Strauss Family aren’t the only ones suitable for seeing out the old year and ringing in the new. Here are waltzes by Chopin and Schubert played by Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Stephen Hough. What waltzes are your favorites?

January 1, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is January 1, 2014.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Here is a reminder that “New Year’s Day From Vienna,” with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (below) performing waltzes, polkas and marches of the Strauss Family under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, will be broadcast live this morning at 10 a.m. CST on Wisconsin Public Radio, and then air at 1:30-3 p.m. and again at 7-8:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

As always the Strauss Family will be the featured stars. But while they made the waltz a livelihood and trademark, there are other outstanding waltz composers.

Two of my favorite waltz composers are Frederic Chopin and Franz Schubert, both of whom found the magic family to combine good cheer and glamor as well as bittersweet poignancy.

So here are two of my favorite sad waltzes both by Chopin. First, there is the so-called “Farewell” Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69, supposedly written in the memory of a fellow student who was killed in the Polish rebellion by Russian troops. Here it is played in a beautifully restrained manner by British pianist Stephen Hough:

And then here is the Op. 34, No 2 in A minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

As for ringing in the New Year, here is one of the “Brilliant Waltzes” by Chopin often used by Arthur Rubinstein to start or end a recital:

More heartbreaking waltzes come from Franz Schubert in his “Noble and Sentimental” Waltzes, a title later borrowed ironically by Maurice Ravel. Here are some of those Schubert waltzes – both cheerful and dark — in one of those wonderful scissors-and-paste jobs, a free-wheeling transcription, by Franz Liszt in the “Soiree de Vienne No. 6” and played incomparably by Vladimir Horowitz.

Hope you enjoy them

Farewell to 2013.

Cheers to 2014.

What are your favorite sad and happy waltzes?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Sexy phenom pianist Yuja Wang sees Rachmaninoff rooted in improvisation and compares him to jazz giant Art Tatum. Hear her talk – and play — on NPR. Also, Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has died at 97.

December 7, 2013
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NEWS ALERT: Marvin Rabin (below, at an award dinner in 2011),  the man who founded and directed the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra back in the 1960s, after a similar history in Louisville and Boston, died at 97 (NOT 95, as I erroneously first stated) on Thursday night. He was a giant in the field of music education, and had a national and international reputation. Look for a longer blog posting tomorrow, on Sunday. He was an amazingly talented, devoted and humane person who affected tens of thousands of lives for the better.

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/wyso-founder-dr-marvin-rabin-passes-away/

Rabin portrait USE

By Jacob Stockinger

Was that refreshing or what?

Maybe it even shows that there is more of an NPR audience for classical music than for some of the hip-hop and Latin stuff they cover to attract younger audiences. One can always hope.

Twenty-six years old and already a superstar, piano phenom Yuja Wang proved playful and articulate as she promoted her new recording (below) for Deutsche Grammophon. It features Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, both with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar former conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (The Madame Butterfly eye lashes on the CD’s cover are a bit much, no? It’s guilding the lotus, The Ear would say. Wang is attractive and sexy enough just as she is.)

Yuja Wang Rach 3 CD coverGD

Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel make a great team, as you can hear in the excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom. And watch how, since she is wearing s strapless dress, you can see how her shoulder and chest muscles get that big sound from a small woman.)

Relaxed and freewheeling, Wang herself proved a great improviser in an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition” co-host Steve Inskeep as she deconstructed and eve performed parts of the “Rach 3” (below, in the NPR studio in a photo by Diane DeBelius).

yuja wang at npr Denise DeBelius NPR

Wang also emphasized the improvisational qualities of the music and compared Rachmaninoff (below top), one favorite of Vladimir Horowitz (below middle), to the blind jazz giant Art Tatum (below bottom), another favorite of Horowitz. I myself think it is very controlled improvisation, much like the music of Frederic Chopin.

Rachmaninoff

Vladimir Horowitz

art tatum

You may recall that the work in question is the titanic, knuckle-busting and wrist-taxing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor that ruined pianist David Helfgott’s sanity or at least triggered his nervous breakdown in the 1996 Australian film “Shine.”

Be sure to listen to Wang’s expressive voice and to read the Readers’ Comments. There are quite a few – and just about all positive.

Many of them see Yuja Wang as a new Vladimir Horowitz — an obvious comparison reinforced by both the way she plays and the repertoire she plays. (Why not see her as the new Martha Argerich — whom Horowitz himself said had learned much from him.)

But the readers also clearly encourage NRP to do more stories along these lines.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/12/02/243942819/yuja-wang-rooted-in-diligence-inspired-by-improvisation

And guess what?

There was no talk about her attractive looks and the sexy micro-skirts and black gown with heels and thigh-slits (below) that have sparked such controversy when she played in them at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, respectively.

yuja wang dress times 3

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes


Classical music Q&A: American pianist Bryan Wallick talks about his synesthesia and about his season-opening concert this Friday with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell.

October 8, 2013
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REMINDER: Do you suffer from stage fright or at least get nervous before a performance? Meet Noa Kageyama (below), a performance psychologist who teaches at the Juilliard School of Music. He will be in Madison at the University of Wisconsin on this Wednesday and Thursday to give free public talks and workshops. Here is his schedule and an illuminating Q&A with him by Kathy Esposito on the UW School of Music’s new blog “Fanfare”:
http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/kageyama/

Noa Kageyama

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday evening at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) will open its new season with the piano soloist Bryan Wallick making his local debut.

WCO lobby

The program includes “Young Apollo” by Benjamin Britten, to celebrate the centennial of the birth of the most famous 20th-century English composer (below).

Benjamin Britten

Also on the program are two famous Fifths: the Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) by Camille Saint-Saens and the ever-powerful Symphony No. 5 in C minor by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Single tickets are $15 to $67, and season subscriptions are still available.

For more information, visit: http://wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/68/event-info/

Pianist Bryan Wallick – who is known for his synesthesia – recent gave an email interview to the Ear in which he discussed his special gift of synesthesia as well as his career and the music of Saint-Saens:

Bryan Wallick mug

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, a small town outside of Cincinnati.  I began playing at the age of 4 and got quite serious about playing when I was about 13. I changed teachers to a couple of professors and duo-pianists at the University of Cincinnati (Eugene and Elizabeth Pridonoff, below) and they prepared me to go to The Juilliard School when I finished high school. The biggest competition I won was the Vladimir Horowitz International Piano Competition in Kiev, Ukraine.

Elizabeth and Eugene Pridonoff

I understand you have synesthesia, or the mixing or blending of the senses. Can you tell us specifically what that means for you and your playing, and for the listener?

In my experience, I see a color with each different notes (12 different notes and 12 different colors).  For example, E is green, C is white, G is red, etc.

synesthesia numbers, letters, colors

It’s a peripheral experience in my mind’s eye as I play, and it probably helps a little with memory retention as I have some another association (color) with the notes.

It doesn’t really have any impact on the audience, except in the case where I was given a grant by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Arizona to create a program that displayed some pictures depicting an approximate version of what I see in my mind when I play.

Bryan Wallick at piano

What do think about the role of Camille Saint-Saens (below) in music history? Is he too overlooked, neglected or underestimated? What do you think about the Piano Concerto No. 5 (performed by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in a popular YouTube video at the bottom) and how it compares to his other piano concertos as well as those of the standard repertoire?

Saint-Saens’ role in music history is enigmatic.  He was recognized as a genius prodigy from a very early age like Mozart and Mendelssohn, and he was also a virtuoso pianist who supposedly had fantastic fingers (which features prominently in most his piano works).

He lived a long life and his career and reputation changed perception a few times.  Early in his 30s he was criticized for championing the then “new” music of Liszt and Berlioz, but toward the end of his life in the early 20th century, he was fighting against the music of Debussy and most of the trends that took hold in modern music.

He knew his own music could lean toward the “sentimental” side, and even the famous “Carnival of the Animals” was only published after his death as he knew this kind of music could hurt his reputation in more “serious” circles.

I love his music, even the sentimental pieces, and this particular piano concerto has the best of Saint-Saens musical elements contained within it. The “Egyptian” element is felt mostly in the second movement where he uses oriental scales and some unusual harmonies to depict his “Egyptian” characteristics. It’s a very exciting and virtuosic work.

Camille Saint-Saens

What do you know of Madison and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its music director/conductor Andrew Sewell (below). Will this be your Madison or Wisconsin?

I met Andrew in Oregon a few years ago when we were both performing out there.  We got on really well, and I was lucky enough for him to engage me to come and open this season with the orchestra. This will be my first time to play in Madison.

andrewsewell

Was there an Aha! Moment — a work or composer, a performance or performer– that made you want to be a professional concert pianist?

Perhaps, when I was about 12, I played in a master class of the teachers who then soon after I began to study with. The way they were able to bring music to life in a completely new and exciting way inspired me to want to practice and be able to create music and beauty the way they could.

What advice do you have for young music students, especially pianists?

I would say that one should not go into music unless that is really all they could see themselves doing one day. It is a very difficult career, with lots of bumps and bruises to the ego, but once the hard work is accomplished and one can turn a phrase 15 different ways, its such a joy to create, experiment, and play this instrument.

Many students miss the fun and joy of performing as they are so worried about playing “correctly” and I also had to deal with this in my own way. But the more I take chances with ideas and with sound, the more fun and inspiring the music becomes.

BATC2 Chuang student 2

Is there anything else you would like to add or say?

I can’t wait to perform in Madison next week!


Classical music: Would you believe that seeing a musician perform WITHOUT SOUND is a better predictor of competition success than hearing the performance? That’s what a new study tells us.

August 24, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It turns out that composer Igor Stravinsky (below) was on to something when he urged people to listen to live performances of music with their eyes open.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

But The Ear is betting that even he did not realize just what he was on to since maybe all you need is eyes.

So let me put the question to you:

How could you best predict the winner of a music competition? By using: A) audio only; B) visuals only; or C) audio and visuals.

I would have answered probably A followed by C.

And I suspect so would many of you.

But a new study says we would be wrong.

The correct the answer is definitely B.

That’s right. The music doesn’t matter after all. Don’t even listen. Forget the music.  Just look! Or if you are a contestant, just send in a silent video.

It turns out that even very experienced professional musicians – yes, including the judges of competitions — did better using silent visuals than other sources including the combination of audio and visual.

Not surprisingly, a number of classical music websites have been buzzing with news of the study.

But the best summary I know of so far was done by NPR’s “Morning Edition”’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam (below) who also blogs on the website www.hidden brain.org. Here is a link you can use to listen to his story (don’t just look at his picture):

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/20/213551358/how-to-win-that-music-competition-send-a-video

Shankar Vedantam NPR

And here is another good version from the Harvard Gazette of Harvard University where pianist and human behavioral psychologist specializing in organizational behavior Chia Jung-Tsay (below in a photo by Kris Snibbe) was a co-researcher of the surprising study:

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/08/the-look-of-music/

022411_Tsay_872.JPG

And to think I always enjoyed and emulated the non-emotive and regally quiet bearing of pianists Arthur Rubinstein (below) and Vladimir Horowitz, of violinists Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

I do wonder if an earlier generation, less used to social media and YouTube, would have yielded different results. But we won’t ever know, will we?

So perhaps the Liberace-like flamboyant gestures and physical antics or performing style of the superstar Lang Lang (below) have their place in communicating musical beauty after all.

Lang Lang performing

 

 


Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July or Independence Day when many American composers will be featured. But the music of composer Charles Ives best embodies the spirit of American Independence.

July 4, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, there are usually two holidays on which American classical music is featured: Thanksgiving and TODAY, the 237th Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

fireworks

Radio hosts and concert programmers come up with all sorts of patriotic, all-American choices.

Many are names that are common and predictable — like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Duke Ellington, John Adams, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, John Corigliano and Steve Reich.

Others are less well-known American composers. They include Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Edward Joseph Collins, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, John Harbison, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell and John Cage.

In between are the known and the unknown you will find Charles Ives (1874-1954, below), the Yankee iconoclast who was asked to give up his music career as a church organist because of his daring harmonic improvisations on hymn tunes.

Charles Ives BIG

Trained at Yale University, Ives did quit music as a profession and went into the insurance business in his native Connecticut. He made a fortune while he continued to compose new and modern music with only his own standards and pleasure in mind.

Ives loved to use multiple keys at the same time, to use polyrhythms and to mix vernacular music with original music.

So today The Ear offers two Charles Ives pieces of very different natures.

To celebrate in the usual way, here is a YouTube video of Ives’ extroverted and celebratory “Fourth of July” movement from his “Holidays Symphony.” The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Michael Tilson Thomas. Try to hear the traditional tunes treated in a his own untraditional way:

But perhaps the most beautiful and haunting piece by Ives is “The Unanswered Question.” I offer this video (also by Michel Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) because I am haunted this holiday by my own question concerning liberty and patriotism: Why are second-rate politicians in Wisconsin and elsewhere trying to ruin a first-rate state, a first-rate university and a first-rate country?

And whatever your answer or whether you agree with the question or not, I hope you enjoy the music. And I hope you pass a memorable and enjoyable Fourth of July.

So as an encore, I’ll throw in a third spirited audio clip. It is of Russian-born piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz playing his own astonishing and knuckle-busting piano transcription of Sousa’s march “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which I believe he came up with to mark his new status as an Americanized citizen in 1945.

Happy Fourth of July!


Classical music: How do you cope with wrong notes you hit or hear? Pianist Stephen Hough has a healthy and helpful point of view.

June 23, 2013
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

None of us likes hitting wrong notes.

And most of us detest hearing wrong notes almost as much as making them.

But does that mean that we are being too perfectionist with ourselves and others?

It could be that wrong notes may lie at the heart of the musical experience as a LIVE event.

The outstanding, award-winning British pianist and prolific blogger Stephen Hough (below), who has played several times in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently posted a blog entry that dealt with that issue.

Hough_Stephen_color16

Hough makes some interesting and convincing points that might just help us in our own playing and performances.

And he backs up what he says with some personal and historic examples of wrong notes hit by some very famous musicians, including famed piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below top). (I forget who it was but somebody remarked that arch rival pianist Arthur Rubinstein (below bottom), renowned for his rich tone, often hit wrong notes. And the response was: “But what wrong notes!“

Vladimir Horowitz

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Anyway, here is a link to the blog post:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100069499/aiming-for-perfection-whilst-embracing-mistakes/

Take a read and be sure to listen to the examples and read some of the comments left by others.

See what you think.

Then let the rest of know your reaction to Hough – and to how you cope with hitting or hearing wrong notes.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Georg Solti conducted an orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano: In a straight-forward, muscular and non-neurotic way while the recording industry was its peak.

October 26, 2012
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday marked the 100th birthday of famed conductor Sir Georg Solti. Decca will be issuing nine special multi-CD releases (including a deluxe edition of Wagner’s “Ring”) plus a special 2- CD set with previously unreleased recordings to celebrate the centennial event. And justly so. Solti (below, with a Grammy) won 32 Grammy awards – more than any other musician who was classical, pop, folk, rock, jazz, blues, whatever.

An import from Europe, where he was a refugee from Hitler and spent World War II exiled and jobless in Switzerland, the Hungarian-born Solti, who studied with Bartok, restored the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to world-class preeminence during his 22 years leading the ensemble.

And Solti’s career, which spanned more than 60 years, was aptly described and analyzed in a terrific story last Friday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” by musician and music critic Miles Hoffman. His main thesis was that Solti was as his height just as the recording industry was also at its height. The needed each other and complemented each other.

That made Solti’s complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — which took several years and was the first in history — as well as of the complete symphonies and concertos by Beethoven (below), Brahms and Mahler something special, not just another addition or alternative. The same goes for his many opera recordings. He was the complete musician.

I would add only one more observation: The secret to Solti’s artistic and commercial success was that he allowed us as listeners to hear the music rather than himself.

That was why he could succeed in almost any period or composer or work, from the Baroque era through the Classical and Romantic periods and then into the 20th century,  and why soloists of so many different temperaments and styles liked to work with him. Solti was not a specialist, but a musical chameleon in the best sense.

An affable and dashing, cosmopolitan and compassionate figure who liked to socialize and who played tennis until well into his 80s, Solti seemed the epitome of the healthy musician. His style was marked by a certain naturalness and muscularity, though not by unbalanced brute force. His tempi never seemed exaggerated in either the fast or slow direction, and his use of flexible rubato always seemed judicious and never self-indulgent.

Moreover, he always made music exude both sense and beauty, qualities too rarely exhibited in some contemporary music and performances. As a result, he was not an unmistakable interpreter or egotistical stylist like, say, Vladimir Horowitz or Wilhelm Furtwangler. His performances never seemed fussy, precious or pretentious. Instead they just seemed, well … normal, the way that the music must have been meant to sound. In short, he was always both reliable and, with rare exception, exciting. I would put him in the company of someone like Bernard Haitink.

Let me put it this way: George Solti conducted the orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano. You always felt secure and refreshed in the presence of the music’s greatness, not the player’s personality. The beauty he made just seemed so normal and such an integral part of life that it became part of the so-called “natural world.” And that is the way great art should be: inevitable and a force of nature.

Maybe you will agree with me, and maybe not. But in any case, you should read the story.

Here is a link to that NPR story about Georg Solti:

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/19/163224678/recordings-reissued-on-soltis-100th-birthday

Did you ever hear Solti live? What did you like or dislike?

What is your favorite recording with Solti conducting (he also played the piano)?

What do you think made Georg Solti a great conductor?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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