The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” offered many things to like, some things to dislike

January 31, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s probably heretical to say and I bet some of my my literary colleagues won’t forgive me for saying it. But I have to confess: Overall, Benjamin Britten’s 1954 operatic setting of “The Turn of the Screw” proved more enjoyable and accessible to me than did the original 1898 ghost-story novella by the American master Henry James.

I found that out by first-hand attending the outstanding production of Britten’s by the Madison Opera this past weekend.

Yes, there are some unfortunate tradeoffs when you go from page to stage. They include losing the ambiguity – “true” ghosts or projected psychological illusions? – in the original literary version versus the more objective or behavioral adaptation required by the visual and musical purposes and resources of the stage. (That is similar to the problems one often encounters with movie versions of novels, which can express interiority better so much. But adaptations do exist. Check out the film version with Vanessa Redgrave of Virginia Woolf’s famous novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”)

So the opera and the novel really require you to treat them as different, albeit linked, cultural entities.

Having said that, here are the things I liked and disliked about the production:


Best of all, I liked the sepia-like ghostly projections on the gauze-like screens that sometimes even slowed down the action to an otherworldly effect. It was powerful and original use of visual imagery as its best and the projections worked especially well with the final image of Miles beckoning from the beyond that lingered long after the black-out ending and the final silence.

I liked the playing by the orchestra, made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Under the baton of John DeMain, it performed evenly with top quality and lots of nuances. Plus, it never overwhelmed the singers. Balance is big.

I liked the evenness of the adult cast. True, some voices were more powerful with UW soprano Julia Faulkner as Mrs. Grose topping them all and with soprano Caroline Worra as the Governess close behind. Tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, far right, in a photo by James Gill for The Madison Opera) ) turned in a terrific performance in the high range of his voice, singing expressively and convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (below, second from right) did a fine job with the limited role of Miss Jessel. Still, what impressed me was the overall evenness of the cast. You never winced when one singer opened his or her mouth. Assembling an even cast is no small achievement. Kudos to the Madison Opera.

I liked the opera debuts of local children in major roles: high-schooler Jennifer DeMain and middle-schooler Alistair Sewell (the daughter of John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera and the son of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s director Andrew Sewell, respectively). They acquitted themselves very well. DeMain’s proved the stronger voice, while Sewell’s acting (below, with Caroline Worra’s Governess in a photo by James Gill for The Madison Opera) proved the stronger, with him as the charming school boy who may be a bad seed under the adorable veneer. But one must make some allowances for debuts of young people, and both debuts were cause for pride on their part.

For both adults and children, I like that the production used so many people, including singers, instrumentalists and other production people, who have ties to Madison, to the UW and to Wisconsin. Regional opera companies should play off their regionality whenever possible. The Madison Opera does that.

I liked the intimacy of The Playhouse, in the Overture Center. This was the first time the Madison Opera has staged a work in the small thrust-stage theater. I hope it isn’t the last. You feel close to the characters, close to the other audience members and close to the musicians, who seem more integral and less accompanying by playing from the back of the stage area behind a quasi-transparent curtain. The theater fuses all those elements together.

I liked the elevated flat-screen video or TV panels that gave all secitons of seating the titles of various scenes (kind of like in silent movies) and the English words being sung. (Sometimes, especially in the higher ranges, you can’t make out words in your own language, let alone a foreign one.)

The screens also brought the audience real-time pictures of John DeMain conducting. The involving visual element made for an engaging and holistic experience. Purists may groan, but I say let them groan. Anything that makes opera more entertaining and more understandable gets my vote.

I liked that three of the performances (Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) sold out and that the Thursday night performance played to an 85-percent house or higher. That kind of support bodes well for the future of the Madison Opera.

I liked the two-hour running time of the Britten work. Really, sometimes grand opera needs to be less grand. These days four or five hours can test one’s patience. This was just right, especially if you had had a long day.


I didn’t like most of the music, although I found the second act stronger than the first. (But don’t get me wrong — I didn’t hate it the way I find serialism , 12-tone music and atonal music to be downright ugly. I just didn’t like Britten’s score a lot. And quite a few audience members were “singing” their own sarcastic imitations at intermission. That tells you something.)

Yes, my professional musician friends tell me Britten was a first-rate crafter who music is finely wrought and wonderfully rewarding to study and perform. And there were moments when the same sounds you make when you put your lips together and produce an eerie, ghost-like wo-o-O-O-o-o up and down in pitch seems like exactly the melodic motif that Britten tried to capture and use in various forms or permutations.

The music was atmospheric, I’ll admit, though not as beautifully atmospheric as in the “Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes.” But sometimes it felt like they were singing at you — not for you.

I go to operas for the music, not for the story or the acting, and I miss hearing a big luscious melody in an aria or duet or chorus that takes me to another higher place and lets me leave the theater wishing I could hear it again soon. The more choppy “Screw” score did not offer such moment. I guess that makes it thoroughly modern. I, however, am not so modern – at least not when it comes to music. I like a Gershwin tune – and a Puccini aria. How about you?

I didn’t like all the stage business with moving too much furniture around too often. How many desks and chairs do you need for one two-hour performance? It became distracting and struck me as lazy, uninventive staging. I feel the same way about some of the children’s pseudo-busyness and children’s games with cushions and pillows. Please get to the point, I wanted to say. Stop wasting my time and attention.


So far the Madison Opera is three for three in its success rate for having added a smaller third production in winter: Aaron Copland “The Tender Land” (in the Promenade Theater) Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte” (in the Capitol Theater) and now Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” (in The Playhouse).

What will they think of next? And where will it go?

I am anxious to hear – which we will in just a couple months.

If you went, what did you think of “The Turn of the Screw”?

Where do you agree or disagree with me?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Madison classical music notes: Can you hear who’s gay through a classical music performance?

January 30, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Can you tell if a classical musician — pianists, in this case — is gay or lesbian form the way he or she plays?

What qualities would be different?

They are intriguing and controversial questions. And a time topic, given President Obama’s promise, made during Wednesday night’s State of the Union address, to issue an executive order banning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military.

And it is one that the prize-winning and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient pianist Stephen Hough (below), himself a self-identified gay man, treats in his always interesting and often provocative blog.

Hough names names and is out front in his opinions.

Others beside me too were interested. That particular post drew some 150 responses — more than usual and quite a lot.

Read his blog posting — complete with video and audio examples from YouTube — through  the link below. Also be sure to read both the readers’ responses to him and then his responses to them.

It all makes for an enlightening and thought-provoking read.

And Hough will be in Madison Feb. 26-28 to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

What do you think of the argument for or against identifying a performer’s sexual identity through a performance style?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Madison classical music notes: The Ear’s post-concert encounter with the Emerson String Quartet revealed some local and humanizing trivia

January 29, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Tuesday, I posted a favorable review of the Emerson String Quartet’s first-rate performances of early Ives, middle Dvorak and late Beethoven at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Friday night.

After the concert, I attended a reception for the quartet.

Between the concert and reception, there are some other things to pass on – some information that is of local interest and that humanizes the profession of touring, world-class musicians.

As members of the enthusiastic audience of almost 900 know, the quartet dedicated its one encore – a beautiful Mozart transcription of Bach’s four-part fugue in E-flat major from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II” – to retired UW genetics professor Jim Crow on the occasion of his recent 94th birthday. (See the photos below, taken at the reception by co-host and UW School of Music director John William Schaffer, of the quartet with professor emeritus Crow in the center.)

Now you might think that they dedicated the encore because Crow is a devoted viola player who once even sat in for the slow movement of the Bruckner quartet with the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Or because he is a passionate champion of chamber music who also supports the arts with generous donations. (He sponsors the Madison Symphony Orchestra Bolz Young Artists Competition that was recently broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio and Television, for example.)

And that may be. Crow certainly such recognition for those actions.

But the immediate occasion was apparently that Crow also worked with and mentored a relative of a quartet member, another scientist who taught in the UW System. And throughout the years, with many appearances in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Emerson has stayed in touch with Crow.

What else did I find out, while I munched on late night cheese and desserts?

Here’s what:

The Emerson is very, very busy and does not rest on its laurels form three decades together. In addition to making recordings and pursuing solo careers and teaching and being resident artists at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York – and co-directing the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in cellist David Finckel’s case – the quartet members usually play about 90 concerts a year. The Emerson will tour Europe this spring.

They have been playing standing up – except, of course, for the cellist David Finckel – for a half-dozen years because it is a healthier posture to avoid back problems and to play more expressively. One member even does 15 minutes of Pilates and yoga every day to avoid or lessen back problems. It is also the posture violinists and violists used in the Baroque era and before.

Recording that are planned include: a CD set of Dvorak’s late or mature string quartets, his Viola Quintet and the miniature “Cypresses” – to be released this spring. Then the last Mozart quartets are up – the Emerson has already recorded the six “Haydn” quartets by Mozart; then perhaps a second volume of the Haydn quartets, from Op. 64 through Op. 76.

“But there is always more projects that we want to record than we have time to do,” said one member.

What about a mixed recital program format? Apparently record labels don’t like to mix more than two composers on a CD because it makes it hard to file in stores. But as digital downloads take over, the record companies are more open to different tactics. So a program of quartets by different composers may indeed be in the offing.

I say great because I would love to hear “The Emerson Quartet: 2010” and “The Emerson Concerts: 2011” and so on. Put on one CD and you can recreate something of a live recital program or concert.

The quartet likes to play in Madison because of the audience and because of the distinguished history of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The quartet especially liked the program selected by the Wisconsin Union Theater, and were repeating it in Minnesota and Michigan within three days.

Cellist David Finckel ( above left, f0llowed by violist Lawrence Dutton, UW genetics professor James Crow, second violinist Philip Setzer and first violinist Eugene Drucker) complimented the Schaffers on their handsome and sleek remodeled kitchen because he too is an avid amateur remodeler who doesn’t worry about injuring his hands and just goes ahead and does the carpentry work himself.

And you thought the lives of such acclaimed musicians were all about music!

So, will the Emerson win a Grammy this weekend for its outdstanding album of Janacek and Martinu?

Tune in to the TV broadcast of the Grammys on CBS Sunday night at 7 p.m. or look here.

Posted in Classical music

Madison classical music news: UW’s Continuing Studies offers adults and retirees music classes and music lessons

January 28, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the advantages of living in Madison is having the University of Wisconsin-Madison nearby.

Of course, as Boomers get ready to retire, they may want to check out how they can:

1) Attend regular courses for free;

2) Attend special continuing education courses.

Here’s a link to the home page for the UW’s Department of Continuing Studies.

The department’s motto is, appropriately “Connecting Community to Campus for Lifelong Learning”:

And here is a link to the music offers:

You can also go to and type in Continuing Education and you will find out all about how to register and enroll.

It’s well worth it, judging from comments I have heard, including those from a friend who took retired professor Dick Ringler’s course last semester on the Cantatas of J.S. Bach. The course included actual performances as well as class discussions and lectures and guest speakers. My friend gave it a rave.

One of the new courses is tied into the Madison Early Music Festival, which will focus on early British composers this summer. It is called “From Plantagenets to Tudors: History, Institutions and Music: and will be taught by retired UW history professor and Isthmus music critic John W. Barker (below). He is a knowledgeable and accessible scholar of both history and music so it should be outstanding.

But other courses include instrument lessons, including an introduction to bagpipes, a brass ensemble, guitar and piano lessons. There is also a series on great  composers which will cover Palestrina, Mozart, Dvorak and Respighi.

Most of the courses start in early- or mid-February. But it isn’t too soon to get your enrollment and registration forms filled out and sent in.

It’s a great community resource, and serious music fans should find something of interest  for them.

Here’s a link:

For information or help, you can also call Chelcy Bowles at (608) 265-5629.

If you have ever taken such a course, let us know what you thought of the experience.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Madison Classical music Best Bets Jan. 27-Feb. 2: It’s Julia Faulkner Week, featuring the UW mezzo in Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Turn of the Screw” and the PBS film “The Audition.”

January 27, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

The post-holiday intermission is over and the classical music scene is picking up steam.

It might as well be called Julia Faulkner Week. The former professional mezzo-soprano (below right), who for many years sang in opera houses throughout Europe and with some of the leading orchestras around the world — she has recordings of Pergolesi, Verdi, Mozart and Lee Hoiby on the Naxos label — is now a highly respected University of Wisconsin-Madison teacher as well as a professional singer. And you can see her live and in film on TV this week.

It’s recognition she deserves.

First, a reminder that tonight, Wed., Jan. 27,  at 9 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television at 9 p.m. “Great Performances at the Met” features “The Audition.” (Timing may depend on President Obama’s State of the Union address.)

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke, “The Audition” looks at the intense pressures young opera singers (below center in a photo by Ken Howard of The Met) face as they struggle to succeed in one of the most difficult professions in the performing arts.  Faulkner, who won the Met auditions that launched her career, appears in the film.  

The feature-length documentary takes viewers behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, where each year thousands of hopefuls compete for a cash prize, the chance to sing on the Met stage and the opportunity to launch a major operatic career. (Madison’s Kitt Reuter-Foss also won the Met auditions.)

The film covers the dramatic week leading up to the finals of the 2007 auditions, focusing on three tenor contestants: Michael Fabiano, a fiery 22-year-old grappling with his inner demons; Alek Shrader, a 25-year-old who attempts to sing nine high Cs in the fiendishly difficult aria that made Pavarotti a star; and Ryan Smith, who at age 30 and with little formal training, is pursuing his dream of an operatic career.

“The Audition” is both a suspenseful competition narrative and a revealing backstage look at what it takes to make it as an opera singer.

Watch and tell us what you think of the content of the various programs, and whether local and national public television should do more classical music concerts, shows and specials?

Then on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m., the Madison Opera opens a four-performance run of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera “The Turn of the Screw” – based on Henry James’ famous ghost-story novella. (Alistair Sewell as Miles and Caroline Worra as the Governess are seen below in a ghostly photograph taken by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

The shows are in the Overture Center’s Playhouse – a first for the Madison Opera. (The company has been trying out smaller, winter operas in various venues. Two years ago, it staged sellout performances of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” in the Promenade Theater and last year, it was a sellout of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” in the Capitol Theater.)

Additional performances are on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are still available, but sales have been picking up fast and the best seats still available are on Thursday night.

“We’re hoping for sellouts of all four performances, which would be fantastic,” says Brian Hinrichs, the director of communications for the Madison Opera.

Another reason for interest is that the production features of local talent and people with UW ties: Gregory Schmidt (former student of Mimmi Fulmer) and Jamie Van Eyck (alumna and current doctoral student and Paul Collins Fellow, who studies with Julia Faulkner.)

Julia Faulkner will sing an adult title role. The two juvenile leads will be sung by Jennifer DeMain (below right, the daughter of Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director and conductor John DeMain); and by Alistair Sewell (below left, the son of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s music director and conductor Andrew Sewell.) For more information about and interviews with the two young singers, see the posting of January 8 on this blog.

Players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra will be under the baton of John DeMain, the artistic director of the Madison Opera who is known for his operas conducting around the nation and world.

For more information and tickets ($20 and $52), call the Overture Center box office at 608 258-4141 or visit the link below to the Madison Opera:

Over at the UW School of Music, things are still picking up steam.

But a major faculty concert has been postponed. A recital scheduled for this Friday, January 29, by soprano Mimmi Fulmer and pianist Christopher Taylor has been rescheduled to Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.

Also on Friday, the free Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. will features rarely performed string trios by Beethoven (C Minor, Op. 9, No. 30 and Schubert (B-flat major, D. 471) with Laura Burns, violin; Marie Pauls, viola; and Sarah Schaffer, cello.

Admission and coffee are free at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. For information, call 608 233-9774.

On “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen,” you can hear – live or on the Wisconsin Public Radio – the Prometheus Trio (below right) on Sunday, January 31, at 12:30 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art.

The program will feature Paul Moravec’s “Mood Swings” from 1998 and Antonin Dvorak’s great Trio in F Minor.

The Prometheus Trio consists of faculty members at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and is currently celebrating its 10th season performing masterworks by composers like Beethoven and Mozart. Players include Scott Tisdel on cello, Timothy Klabunde on violin and Stefanie Jacob on piano.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Here’s why the Emerson String Quartet may be the best in the world

January 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It was the small encore – a Bach fugue transcribed by Mozart — that gave away the key to all that had come before.

There I was last Friday night, sitting in the lower balcony of the Wisconsin Union Theater and listening to the world-famous Emerson String Quartet performing Dvorak’s String Quartet in E-flat major Op. 51.

At one point, I heard the viola burst through the strong two violins and the resonant cello.

At another point, I clearly heard the cello rise up through the two violins and viola.

And it is exactly moments such as those that make the Emerson great.

Perhaps the greatest.

It is typical to talk about a string quartet’s ability to blend together. After it, it was Franz Joseph Haydn, the 18th-century composer and inventor of the quartet (well, all right, Haydn didn’t completely invent the string quartet, but he might as well have) who called a string quartet “a conversation among equals.”

But the secret to the Emerson is that all the players are virtuosos in their own right.

And rather than blend into a thick and syrupy string sound, the members work on transparency and clarity. With the Emerson, you can hear all the parts – but they are not all equal at all moments, and were not meant to be by the composers whose works they perform.

That approach is especially impressive in a Romantic composer like Dvorak, where the temptation is to lean toward richness rather than a leaner clarity.

I wasn’t the only one who remarked on that quality. In fact, at a post-performance reception I heard a local professional cellist congratulate an Emerson player remark on just that quality. And the player deeply and sincerely thanked the cellist.

“That’s what we take a lot of time to do and what we try to achieve,” the Emerson player said.

And achieve it they do.

They certainly did Friday night in a masterfully conceived program that put Charles Ives’ Quartet No. 1, with its use of American folk music, up against the Czech folk music of Dvorak. Then the finale, by turns dramatic and sublime, was Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 127, in E-flat major.

The audience liked what it heard and rewarded the quartet with loud applause, a standing ovation and even whistles and whoops to get an encore: the Mozart version of J.S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat, from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.”

It was perfect ending with the four-part fugue highlighting the interplay of the individual parts and instruments – exactly what the Emerson was doing, and had done.

In short, the quartet took its cue from Bach, the father of modern classical music. And it worked – as it has throughout the 30-year career of the quartet. Bach knew, and they know that Bach knew and have put that knowledge into practice.

Happily, the house was almost 900 – better than the Union Theater staff expected, especially on a night when the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra was also performing with the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet.

It should have been a sell-out of 1,100 or so. But that’s another story for another time.

And so are the things I found out about the Emerson at a post-concert reception, including future CDs, why they play standing up (except, of course, for the cellist), and the tie that the quartet has to Madison.

Those things will be revealed here later this week.

So stay tuned.

And let me know what you thought of the Emerson’s performance last week.

Which of their many records is your favorite – Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Grieg, Nielsen, and Janacek (the latter may earn the Emerson a Grammy later this week)?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music notes: Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg were masters at using famous classical music in movies

January 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently I was again watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” What a great film! And it grows greater with each viewing – as great works of art should.

This time I heard something really interesting and really subtle.

I was watching the scene where Ingrid Bergman (playing Alissa Huberman) goes to the home of Claude Rains (playing exiled German businessman Alexander Sebastian) and his mother for a dinner party she has been invited to in Rio. It is her first time to become an undercover American agent (reporting to T.R. Devlin, played by Cary Grant) and penetrate a post-war Nazi spy ring interested in uranium.

As she enters the mansion, you hear piano music,

“Recognize it?”  I asked the person watching me.

“Chopin,” came back the reply right away.

“That’s right,” I said, “and wrong.”

I explained.

“It is indeed Chopin, I said. “But it is ‘Chopin’ as heard by Schumann in his set ‘Carnival,’ where he imitates Chopin’s dreamy melodic style in a spot-on pastiche.”

How fitting I thought, on several levels.

The music is just like the movie and its characters. It is by Schumann, a non-Jewish German, passing for a Frenchman and Pole (both of which nationalities were despised by Hitler and Nazis).

If that isn’t perfect spy music or a sonic disguise, what is it? And then after that snippet, you hear another little piece of piano music.

This time the music is also by Schumann, but it comes from a different work. It’s one of his “Fantasy Pieces.”

It’s an enigmatic, unresolved littler piece entitled, appropriately, “Warum” or “Why”?

Mysteries lie all around us, in music and spy movies.

Hitchcock sure knew how to use soundtracks to layer the meaning of his story and create atmosphere, no?

It reminds of a wonderful scene that I hope I recall correctly in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

The Nazi soldiers are feeling pretty smug and culturally superior as they set fire to the ghetto. And you hear piano music being played by a German.  “Ah, Mozart,” says one Nazi with self-satisfaction and pride.

Except it is not Mozart. It is Bach – specifically, the opening of his English Suite No. 2, which is also used by Woody Allen in his dark film “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

True, that’s still German music. But Mozart was Austrian, not German, and more to the point, the Nazi doesn’t even really know the music for which he is willing to kill what he considers to be culturally inferior peoples.

It’s a fine and subtle use of irony.

I’ll watch for more similar uses of classical music in music and let you know what I find.

Do any of you know of other examples?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Can classical music help treat anxiety and depression?

January 24, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Can classical music help treat anxiety or depression?

Based on what I have seen and read and experienced personally, the proposition seems iffy to me.

I recall that  the famed piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below)

retired from concertizing several times when he was being treated for depression, and that his late career success blossomed only after he got off medication that had impaired his playing and memory.

Somehow when you’re depressed, a sense of pleasure goes away. Doesn’t that affect whether and how you listen to classical music — or, for that matter, any other kind of art or music?

It is hard to imagine composing music when you are seriously or clinically depressed or anxious. But maybe some famous composers did just that.

Maybe some performers too.

But then again maybe the field of art therapy has made progress on that front.

Anyway, some German researchers now say that classical music– but not necessarily others kinds  can benefit anxious and depressed persons.

Here’s a link:,music-can-help-treat-conditions-such-as-anxiety-depression.html

What do you think or know from personal experience about listening or performing classical music if you are depressed or anxious?

How do you respond to classical music when you are anxious or depressed?

Are there composers or pieces you find good or bad to listen when you are depressed or anxious:

What do you make of the new research?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Meet Kirill Gerstein, the new winner of the Gilmore piano competition

January 23, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

When is a piano competition not a piano competition?

When it is the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Gilmore was a wealthy Kalamazoo businessman and avid amateur pianist.) UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, by the way, performs at the Gilmore Festival and won a Gilmore Young Artists Award in 1990.

Every four years the Gilmore names a new grand prize winner — and that winner gets $300,000 and  usually goes on to have an international career.

He is Russia-born Kirill Gerstein (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve), who is now a naturalized American residing in Newton, Mass., and teaching at the conservatory in Stuttgart, Germany. He has not got many recordings out — not yet anyway — but that is sure to change.

Past winners, for example, include the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes, the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski and the Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter (who made her Madison debut last season with a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater).

So how is that different from, say, the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Van Cliburn Competiti0n or the William Kapell C0mpetition?

Good question.

For those events, you have to apply to participate, and if you are accepted, you travel to the competition and perform while the judges make their decisions.

But with the Gilmore, the judges go to the pianists as they regularly perform around the world — and the pianists do not even know they are being watched and evaluated by critics in the audience.

It’s a fascinating approach and the success of the results have been undeniable.

And so recently Gerstein, the new winner, was named to his own surprise — and the public’s.

One wonders: Can anybody in Madison — the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Overture Center — book Gerstein while his fees are still affordable and his schedule is still open?

Whatever the answer, here are some links to articles about Gerstein and the Gilmore:

Gerstein is a complete unknown to me — and I follow the piano scene pretty closely. But now I am very eager to get to know his playing.

Have any of you heard Gerstein play or perform?

What do you think of him?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Conductor Seiji Ozawa has cancer and many symphony orchestras face a minor-key future

January 22, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This is not a happy time for many symphony orchestras around the country.

They face budget deficits, declining endowment, curtailed seasons, labor strife and lower attendance.

Here are some links to follow — especially to stories about the famed, world-class Cleveland Symphony (below) .  They make you realize how relatively healthy things seem in Madison’s classical music scene:

But before the Cleveland Orchestra strike was settled, a good piece with a lot of ominous background and context appeared:

On a more personal or human note, longtime conductor Seiji Ozawa has cancer:

And despite a burgeoning population in the Southwest, the Tucson Symphony faces cutbacks:

Here’s a link the artsjournal web site, which has other stories about orchestras going bankrupt — the Honolulu Symphony (below) and others:

What do you think of the financial and attendance problems of symphony orchestras?

Do you know of other problems at other symphony orchestras?

What is a solution?

Should they turn to more contemporary program?

Or should they go back to basics — like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — to reach a new audience that hasn’t been educated into liking classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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