The Well-Tempered Ear

I like classical music in fiction: Can you offer suggestions? Plus, piano doc airs tonight

September 22, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

(A Pre-Script: Just a reminder that the documentary “Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L-1037,” about the building of a Steinway concert grand piano, will air tonight — Tuesday, Sept. 23 — from 9 to 10 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television WHA-TV Channel 21.)

I love reading fiction – short stories and novels – that use classical music. So I am always on the look out for more.

I always think it reflects well on writer’s ability to compose musical sentences, to have a sense of poetry – cadence, alliteration, assonance, even rhyme – in prose. Often such allusions also add a layer of cultural and psychological meaning to the characters and story.

The latest comes from the new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs,” which I just finished, by Lorrie Moore (below right). Lorrie Moore
Here is how Moore, who lives in Madison and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  uses her protagonist Tessie to describe pianist Glenn Gould (pictured left) Gould3 performing J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 1 in D minor: “It was someone humming along with the light dirge of the Bach. Later I would own every loopy Glenn Gould recording available, but there in the car with Sarah was the first time I’d hear him play. The piece was like an elegant interrogation made of tangled yarn, a query from a well-dressed man in a casket, not yet dead. It proceeded slowly, like a careful question, and then not: if x=y, if major=minor, if death equals part of life and life part of death, then what is the sum of the infinite notes of this one phrase? It asked, answered, reasked, its moody asking a refinement of reluctance or dislike. I had never heard a melody quite like it.” (Page 39) Moorebook

I think Moore, who also alludes to Mussorgsky and Mozart and who describes someone as “fretful as a Bartok quartet” in the same novel, has written an outstanding description of what it is like to listen to that particular piece done by that particular artist. (I just played it again to check.)

I can think of many other similar examples.

Another current book is Eva Hoffman’s new novel “Appassionata,’ which deals with a touring piano virtuoso who falls in love with a Chechan terrorist.

And Haruki Murakami uses many references to Western classical music, as well as to jazz and pop culture, in his short stories and novels, including “Kafka on the Shore” and “Sleep.”

Thomas Mann discusses Beethoven’s late string quartets and other music in “Doctor Faustus.” In “Tristan” he uses Wagner and in “The Magic Mountain” he writes of Schubert.

Marcel Proust uses a lot of music – not surprisingly, French music — in “Remembrance of Things Past”  (In Search of Lost Time).

William T. Vollmann makes Shostakovich pivotal is his historical novel “Europe Central,” which won the National Book Award.

Willa Cather has a moving account of the power of music in her story “A Wagner Matinee.”

Swedish detective writer Henning Mankell has his hero/anti-hero police detective Kurt Wallander listen to opera in his car.

Julio Cortazar refers to the composer Alban Berg in his experimental novel “Hopscotch.”

But I am certain there are many more.

So, readers, can you help me out?

Can you suggest literary works with references to classical music?

What ones are your favorites?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Drafts

Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations are overblown, second-rate music

September 21, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

I love the piano, both playing and listening to it.

So I remain stumped: Why are Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations considered so great?Beethoven

They come to mind right now because I just heard a fine live performance of them on “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” (the weekly live chamber music program on Wisconsin Public Radio) with pianist Eugene Alcalay, a Romanian-born protégé of Leonard Bernstein who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

And I have also listened to an award-winning new recording by Stephen Kovacevich who launched his international career with a recording of the Diabelli’s some 30 years ago and then recently recorded them again for Onyx Records, his new home after Angel-EMI let him go.

Anyway, to me the Diabelli’s still sound like much ado about nothing.

Beethoven had it right at the beginning: the waltz theme that the music publisher Anton Diabelli (below right) distributed to composers is indeed trivial. And so is the mammoth set of variations he composed on that waltz – mammothly trivial, true, but trivial all the same.Anton Diabelli

I mean, in about the same time it takes to perform the Diabelli’s or to listen to them, you could play or listen to two of the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven. And THAT is a project infinitely more rewarding spiritually and musically.

Some critics compare the Diabelli’s to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations — but length and technical virtuosity are the only basis I can hear. The Bach is great music; the Beethoven, certainly a virtuosic tour-de-force, has its great moments (see the first page of the score, below right), but overall I find it not great music but tedious and choppy.Diabelli music

So, I ask:

Is there something I’m missing about the Diabelli variations?

Can someone explain to me why the Diabelli’s are great music and worth the bother of learning or listening?

Or do many of you share my view that this particular Beethoven is realty pretty second-rate compared to Ludwig’s genuine masterpieces.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Chicago Symphony Orchestra announces next summer’s Ravinia concerts

September 20, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

Even as the days are growing cooler and shorter, and as fall deepens, it is consoling to think ahead to next summer.

Which is why I find a certain joy in looking at the just released schedule of next summer’s concerts at Ravinia (below), the suburban summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Ravinia

The summer season will run June 28 through August 15.

I also like the schedule because it offers some unusual programming that I think other symphony orchestras could learn from and apply to their regular indoor seasons.

For example. the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will open with a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth.

And they really mean it.

Guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson (below right, who won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1971 when he was just 18,  will perform both Chopin concertos plus selected solo piano works. What a great idea, to give a hybrid orchestra concert and piano recital. Does any one else agree?Ohlsson

There will also be a concert of “hits” from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (just what short attention spans, crowded schedules and tight wallets need) and two concerts offering all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos.

Lots of birthdays celebrations are included too: Ravinia music director James Conlon turns 60 and former music director Christoph Eschenbach turns 70 while Broadway musical legend Stephen Sondheim turns 80. The CSO will also salute the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence, the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Aaron Copland and his student Leonard Bernstein; the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler and the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer Samuel Barber.

One thing I don’t like: If I understand it correctly, to place an order for reserved seats in the pavilion, you have to become a donor (at $250). That’s too much like the way college and professional sports work these days for The Ear’s taste, though I would like to know your view.

There is an incentive for ordering early: You get 25 percent off the total order if you place it before Jan. 15, 2010.

Take a look at the Ravinia schedule for yourself, then let us know what you think.

Here’s a website for programs and ticket info:

Have you been to Ravinia and how did you like it?

What do you think of Ravinia’s schedule for next summer?

Which program or concert most attracts you?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

‘YouTube’ helps me learn classical music. What about you?

September 19, 2009
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

These days, among the piano pieces I am in the final stages of learning are the “Musical Moments” No. 1 in C major and No. 3 in F Minor, the “Russian Air,” by Franz Schubert (below right).Schubert

Both are often used as encores (Sviatoslav Richter often played No.1 and Vladimir Horowitz liked no. 3). They are wonderful, songful miniatures.

The first is much like impromptu with a songful middle section.

The third is a small ditty that combines lyricism with military march rhythms, as much of Schubert does, and it usually takes between 1-1/2 minute and 2-1/2 minutes to perform.

Both ares often treated as an easy, intermediate-level pieces. But I’ve found that especially the third is trickier than many think, both in the right hand double-thirds and the left hand and the subtle changes that Schubert writes into the score. (Increasingly, I think there is no easy music to play, not even the simplest Two-Part Invention or Chopin Prelude.)

You can hear a lot of recordings of these works, and they can help give you ideas not so much to copy as to spark ideas for your own interpretation.

And they also give you pleasure.

Plus, you can also hear examples for free.

Lately, I’ve been using YouTube as a teaching tool or learning tool for classical music.

You might even say I have been taking piano lessons on YouTube, although I also have a wonderful real-life teacher in Madison.

So I have heard such famed pianist as Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz and Emil Gilels, as well as many amateurs, play these same pieces I am working on.

Here’s a link to Horowitz’Horowitz Hands (his hands are at left) performance of the third:

And to the legendary Schnabel’s (below right) performance of the first: Schnabel

So I ask other music teachers  and music students:

Do you use YouTube?

For what other works, or instruments? Composers or performers?

How helpful is it?

Do you have a favorite classical performance you like to watch on YouTube?

Are there other classical web sites you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Who is the better classical diva – Kiri Te Kawa or Renee Fleming?

September 18, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Two of the world’s top singers are in the news.

Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (below right) – now 65 and past her prime, which was prime indeed  — has backed off from suggestions that she might retire, according to press account in the U.S. and Australia.


Meanwhile top soprano Renee Fleming (below left), who at 50 is in peak form and is very, very busy and is the current darling of the opera and concert world, helped open the New York Philharmonic’s new season Wednesday night when she sang Olivier Messiaen’s “Poemes pour Mi” (anyone else find the work underwhelming?) with the Philharmonic’s new director Alan Gilbert at the opening of his tenure. (You could see it and hear on PBS.)reneefleming

Now I have heard Dame Kiri live when she came to Madison.

I don’t think Fleming has ever appeared here. And with her fee, she probably won’t.

But who is better?

The overwhelming consensus today seems to be Fleming. (For the sake of argument, we’ll leave out Dawn Upshaw, who, I also think, is superb, and Maria Callas, who has never been surpassed for her sense of drama, if not for her  voice.)

But I recall hearing both Fleming and Te Kanana sing two famous Puccini arias: Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi and “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.”

And I have to say that, in both cases, I liked the quality of Kiri’s voice better.

To my ears, she had less obtrusive vibrato.

Most of all her phrasing seemed simply smoother and more natural.

And her tone was smoother and fuller, rounded with kind of naturalness, pleasant to the ears — the kind of apparently easy or effortless and natural-sounding mastery that tenor Luciano Pavarotti had.

But voice is not my specialty.

So what do real voice fans, opera and art song fanatics, say?

Kiri or Renee?

And why?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Drafts

Single tickets for Madison Opera’s great season are now on sale

September 17, 2009
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Single tickets to Madison Opera’s 2009-10 season productions went on sale Monday.

Contact the Overture Center Box Office. The Box Office can be reached online at, by phone at (608) 258-4141, and in person at 201 State Street in downtown Madison.

To view a three-minute guided preview of the new season with General Director Allan Naplan (below),

visit Naplan

The Opera’s 2009/2010 season opens with Georges Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen on Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. International opera star Katharine Goeldner sings the title role, with Madison-native Candace Evans directing and Maestro John DeMain conducting the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera Chorus. This production also features the Madison Youth Choirs and the Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance Company.

Following Carmen, the Opera presents a new production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw from Jan. 28 to 31 in The Playhouse at Overture Center for what is sure to be a haunting and intimate theatrical experience.

Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” — the company’s first Wagner production ever — rounds out the mainstage season in Overture Hall on Apr. 9 (8 p.m.) and 11 (2:30 p.m.) in Overture Hall.

It’s worth noting that music director John DeMain (below), who is entering his 16th season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and who is a world-class opera conductor with guest stints around the country and world, will be at the podium for all three productions. That might attract even more people to the productions since some go more for the theater and others go more for the music. DeMainOpera

Tickets to Overture Hall performances remain as low as $16 and pricing for front-balcony seating has been reduced for the 2009/2010 Season.

Tickets for Carmen and The Flying Dutchman are available for $16, $38, $49, $68, $77, $97, and $112. Students have the added option of purchasing $38 level seats for $20.

Tickets for The Turn of the Screw in The Playhouse are available for $20 and $50.

Cast listings and opera summaries are online at To receive press images, please respond to this e-mail. All Madison Opera fans are invited to join the Madison Opera Facebook page at

To The Ear, it seems like an extremely well-planned season with something French-Spanish, something British-American and something German-Dutch. So my guess is that the Madison Opera will continue to do well, despite a weak economy and a lot of local competition in the performing arts.

I am hardly an opera fanatic but I can’t think of a disappointing production I’ve seen at the Madison Opera, and I am especially impressed with the way the Madison Opera is using new media — the Internet, texting and social networking sites — to reach new audiences and get out the word.

I say, Congratulations and Good Luck.

What do you say about the Madison Opera and to the Madison Opera?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Drafts

Classical music Best Bets for the coming week (Sept. 16-22)

September 16, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here are my picks for the upcoming week:

Tonight, Sept. 16: The Wisconsin Union Theater kicks of its sixth annual World Music Festival TIBET through this Sunday with a free concert today at 4 p.m. Although it isn’t classical music, I have found from attending some of these events or ones like them (I  heard African and Portuguese singers last year) that classical fans have much to learn from seeing and hearing the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic  links to other kinds of music (including that of Tibet, see the monks above) around the world and also get ideas to bring to interpreting and listening to Western classical music.

For full schedule of some two dozen events (most are free) and ticket information, visit

Also: Don’t forget the great orchestral music on TV tonight. On Wisconsin Public Television (Channel 21 in Madison) there are two classical music shows of interest: At 8 p.m., “Live From Lincoln Center” will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the  famous arts venue in New York City and will also offer the TV debut of Alan Gilbert, the new young maestro of the New York Philharmonic, which opens its first season with him. His guests artist is superstar soprano Renee Fleming, who sing orchestral songs “Poemes pour Mi” of the 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen. The Philharmonic will also perform the world premiere of a piece by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg and Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.” Then at 10 p.m. comes the Vienna Philharmonic’s Summer Concert, under conductor-piano soloist Daniel Barenboim. Both programs make for good live listening — or for recording to be listened to later.

Thursday, Sept. 17: At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The UW Faculty Concert Series offers Mark Hetzler, trombone (right),

Hetzler Anthony Di Sanza, percussion and Jessica Johnson, piano. The program features the three performers in all duo and trio configurations. Selections include “Inner Rebellion” by Steven Rush (b. 1958); “Climb” by David Vayo (b. 1957); “Concert Variations” by Jan Baach (b. 1937). Admission is free and open to the public.

Friday, Sept. 18: At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Fourth Annual Organ Festival in Overture Hall. “Fanfares & Flourishes” will feature music for organ and trumpets. Performers include Madison trumpeters John Aley and Andrew Balio as well as Madison Symphony organist Samuel Hutchison (left). Hutchison Tickets are $15 at the Overture Center box office (608 251-4848) or at

Also: A free concert at 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall on UW campus (Mosse Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St). UW composers John Stevens (right top) JohnStevens and Douglas Hill (below right) will be featured in a program by horn player Gail Williams of Northwestern University’s School of Music and pianist Kathryn Goodson, who teaches collaborative piano for voice, winds and percussion at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance. The program features the world premiere of “Sonata for Horn and DougHill Piano” by Stevens and “A Set of Songs and Dances” for horn, clarinet, bass and percussion by Hill.

Saturday, Sept. 19: Free Community Hymn Sing with organist Bruce Bengston at 11 a.m. in Overture Hall.

Sunday, Sept. 20: Free master class for young trumpeters from 2 to 4 p.m. in Overture Hall. REGISTER BY TODAY. CALL 257-3734.

Also: The Metropolitan Opera’s production of bel canto masterpiece, known for its famous mad scene, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” will be broadcast on WHA-TV Channel 21 at 9:30 p.m.

Posted in Classical music

NY Philharmonic starts new era on TV Wednesday night

September 15, 2009
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Classical music lovers should like this mid-week concert that doesn’t make us rush through dinner and stay out late.

So save Wednesday night for the PBS series “Live from Lincoln Center” (produced by Emmy-winning UW-Madison graduate John Goberman) will televise the orchestra’s opening night’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, the iconic performing arts complex in New York City. (Can it really be 50 years since it went up?)

Even if you can watch this enjoyable historic event live, you can record it for later viewing.

The broadcast will feature the opening of the first season and the national debut of the New York Philharmonic’s 42-year-old new music director and conductor Alan Gilbert (below), whose parents have long been connected to the Philharmonic.AlanGilbert3

He’s young, he’s good and he is adventurous in his programming, which some observers are skeptical about and others are wildly enthusiastic about. (For a profile with question-and-answer interview, see

The programming for Wednesday night’s concert seems to show how Gilbert will mix the old and the new.

Superstar soprano Renee Fleming (right) will solo reneefleming in 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen’s orchestral songs “Poemes pour Mi,” the world premiere of a work by contemporary  Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg and then Hector Berlioz’ long-respected and frequently performed mainstream Romantic masterwork “La Symphonie Fantastique,” which includes the famous drug-induced hallucination passage and also a march to the scaffold.

Check the story and local listings at PBS:

In Wisconsin, the concert will be broadcast Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television Channel 21  (WHA-TV in Madison) and on the high definition channel. (Following it at 10 p.m. will be the Vienna Philharmonic’s Summer Concert with Daniel Barenboim.)

Be sure to let The Ear know if you like having TV concerts included in the blog.

And don’t forget a short review of the concert with what you think of Gilbert and the program. Here’s a chance for you to be the critic.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Drafts

Use a ‘nom de blog’ to leave comments. What will get more responses?

September 15, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

I have been heartened and gratified by the number of “hits’ so far for “The Well-Tempered Ear.” It took more than two weeks to reach the first 500 hits, and now it has almost 900 only one week later.

But I keep asking questions and expecting more comments in response to them.

But then last week one reader said to me in person that they were concerned about their identity floating around on the web.

So let me reassure you: Comments can be and do get filtered before they posted to keep out spam and and private info, if that is requested.

So feel free to have and use a “nom de blog,” as some readers already do, or to ask me to protect your identity. Be inventive, as you some readers have been. See for yourself from their comments.

Maybe that advice or suggestion will bring in some more comments from my readers who, I am sure, have strong opinions about much of what I write.

If there is more I can to encourage you to comment — certain topics, kinds of stories, ways of asking –please tell me.

Remember that tomorrow, Wednesday, is Best Bets day and will have a lot now that the season is heating up.

That’s all for now. It’s the  coda to today, so to speak, except to say:

To Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Should classical music radio hosts give us performance info before and after?

September 14, 2009

GillilandBy Jacob Stockinger

It’s happening again.

As I’m writing, I have on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Midday Concert.”

I have it on a lot when I write. I love WPR.

They’re playing a lovely solo piano piece (the same way another host in a WPR studio is doing in the photo above). Excellent choice. It sounds like Scarlatti.

Except now it has more than one movement and sounds not so baroque. So maybe it’s C.P.E. Bach. Or maybe early Haydn or early Mozart.

Or maybe it’s another Scarlatii sonata in a medley. (They sometimes get tricky and do that.)

In any case, the host didn’t announce the piece, the composer or the player.

Just BAM!!! There it was — like it or not, know it or not.

They just launched into it — like I have the same time they have in the studio booth to wait for the mystery to be solved, for the answer to be revealed.

I guess they call such devices “teasers” for a good reason.

But, really, who likes being teased?

I’ll bet they don’t.

I, for one, hate it when that happens.

My understanding is that WPR gives its radio hosts discretion about when to announce such information — before or after or both – and what information to announce.

Some hosts are better about it than others. So maybe the station should standardize the format.

I can’t tell you have many time I have muttered maledictions on one or another of the hosts for failing to tell me a piece I joined midway, or left before it was open, or got called away from because of the phone or someone at the door.

“That was Chopin’s waltz in A-flat,” a radio host said recently.

Great, I thought, which waltz in A-flat?

Now, I happen to know that Chopin wrote two famous waltzes in A-flat. But I bet lot of listeners don’t know that.

And still won’t know it after listening to this particular host — who also announced one day “That was two of Debussy’s preludes from Book 2.”

Terrific, except which two? There are 12 — and they all have names, not just key or numbers.

Sure, the hosts can say, you can always go on-line and find a listing for what you heard.

What a pain.

Some of us fill our time with other activities than doing some else’s job for them.

I say: Just do our job right and inform me first about what I’m about to hear or then what I have just heard. Give me full disclosure of the piece, composer and performer like you’re an arts journalist and not just a DJ. I may want to avoid it, or I may want to get a copy for my own listening pleasure. So don’t get coy or cute.

Aha! It turns out my Scarlatti is really John McCabe performing Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in B-flat Major.

So it was indeed early Haydn.

Satisfaction at last.

Good thing I wasn’t out shopping for groceries and either left the car or returned to it in frustration when they were into another piece.

But  now it’s happening again. I can’t believe it.

They just started playing an early Mozart string quartet (No. 8 in F Major, they say, but no Kochel catalogue number and numbering schemes differ) without telling me the performers I’m listening to.

Good thing I have some almost-great music to soothe my rising anger and impatience with such laziness and myopia.

Hey, am I the only one?

Anyone else out there feel the same way?

Anyone else want to know all the relevant information before and after the performance or airing?

Tell me and the radio hosts about it.

Does any WPR radio host want to explain or defend not providing information?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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