The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Robert Levin rocks out in the terrific all-Beethoven opener at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

August 31, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

You could see it especially well because renowned Harvard pianist and music scholar Robert Levin (below) sat with his back to the audience, surrounded by five string players (two violins, two violas and a cello).

Even as his fingers scurried up and down the keyboard, Levin’s backlit arms and hands flailed above his head and his torso swayed back and forth.

Bob Levin was cooking.

He was downright rocking out.

Or as one veteran professional musician politely put it: “That was an experience!”

And indeed it was.

Levin was opening this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with a chamber version of Beethoven’s magnificent Piano Concerto No. 4. (Levin has performed similar arrangements by Mozart at past festivals.)

Piano concertos just don’t come better than Beethoven’s Fourth.

But this was not your usual Fourth. In the days when professional symphony orchestras didn’t exist, Prince Lobkowitz commissioned this chamber version for more economical private performances.

And when he revised the score and “reduced” it, Beethoven parsed out the strings among the strings, but seems to have put some of the winds and horns into the piano part – along with some added elaborations.

The net effect? Lots and lots of extra notes and chords – heightened by the improvised and energetic cadenzas Levin is so justly famous for.

Some reduction!

This Fourth may be smaller in scale than the usual version, but it is even more impressive for the super-charged virtuosity in service of poetry. (In case you wonder, I still prefer the original setting.)

So when the final chords ended the work, the sold-out house jumped to its feet and roared in approval. It was quite the event to close out the all-Beethoven concert. It was fun. It was instructive. And besides, how often do you get to hear “new” Beethoven.

Earlier in the Sunday afternoon concert – the second performance of the program – local cellist Parry Karp (below) of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet joined Levin, who showed his outstanding ability to blend and partner in a perfectly paced and executed playing of Beethoven’s “Seven Variations on ‘Bei Mannern welche Liebe fulhlen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

With Token Creek co-director violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below), Levin performed the gorgeous and varied “Cockcrow” Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 96, loaded with trill motifs. The violin part suffered from some pitch problems and thin tone, but in the end conviction made for a persuasive and expressive performance.

Besides Levin, the other star of this concert was Token Creek’s other co-director, prize-winning composer John Harbison.

The Ear thinks Harbison may well be the best explainer of music he has ever heard – and that includes Leonard Bernstein.

First standing and then sitting at the piano, Harbison explained without jargon how the works to be played would explore the way Beethoven was affected by Mozart, especially in the clarity of line.

Harbison explored how most great composers – like Beethoven – sit astride the traditional and the new whereas second or near-great composers tend towards one side or the other.

Harbison demonstrated Beethoven’s relatively simple and well-established harmonic language (the basic triad) and how it is countered by more novel uses of rhythm and dynamics.

There was more – including his high-spirited interview of Levin (below) about the unusual Beethoven score — and it all made such sense. You wish you could sit in on Harbison’s classes at MIT. One hopes he writes or compiles a book with these kind of personal essays on all kinds of music and composers. Classical music right now could sure use that kind of accessible, enjoyable and informative work.

Anyway, the intimate longtime festival – which the frantically busy John Harbison has said will end in a year or two — offered the usual amenities: an appreciative and informed audience; intermission treats of trail mix, wine, lemonade and conversation; and this year some sculptures (below bottom) by local artist Andree Valley on the lovely farm land and gardens that surround the warmly refurbished concert barn.

There is plenty more to the festival, which runs through Sept. 5. Here is a link to its website:

And if you care to compare, here is another review of the same Beethoven program by John W. Barker in Isthmus:

The festival continues on Tuesday with a lecture-recital on theme and variations with piano works by Schubert, Roger Sessions and John Harbison.

Then come four jazz cabaret performances.

And next weekend (Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.) comes an all-Bach concert by Emmanuel Music of Boston.

Were you there on Saturday or Sunday afternoon?

What did you think of Robert Levin, John Harbison and the all-Beethoven program? Of the setting?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Pianist Lang Lang’s new “Live in Vienna” CD is surprisingly good and marks a milestone in his career

August 30, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Is it him? Or is it or me?

It’s probably some of both.

But whatever it is, I can say this: The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s new album “Live in Vienna,” his debut on the Sony label, marks a major breakthrough or milestone in his career. It is, at least to my ears, a game-changer.

With this release, Lang Lang goes from being a flashy and flamboyant celebrity lightweight – whom many critics dismissed and dubbed “Bang Bang” for his lack of musicality – to being a serious musician who deserves thoughtful attention and consideration.

Oh, to be sure he’ll still remain an overhyped phenom who uses the new media and technology masterfully to create a worldwide buzz. And he will still perform pop fluff at Memorial Day concerts on the National Mall.

But no longer can he be easily dismissed.

Take his two Beethoven sonatas that open this unusual recital: Op. 2, No. 3 and the famous ”Appassionata,” Op. 57. For me, they are the highpoints of the recital, his strongest release since his Carnegie Hall recital, which also had a few good surprises.

In the first sonata, Lang Lang is measured. He plays clearly with a fine sense of Beethoven’s early Classical style – good voicing, dynamics and pacing or tempo.  His fast movements move, his slow moment sings, his scherzo bounces. In short, he is gutsy, choosing to play Beethoven in Vienna, but he is convincing. I repeatedly found myself surprised and pleased by the subtleties of his playing.

The same goes for the later “Appassionata,” which he treats as much more than a barn-burner or flashy display piece. He brings out a slow poetry and makes the music his own through an expressivity that does not cross over in being mannered. He plays up Beethoven mood shifts and dynamic accents.

True, he may not be about to steal Beethoven away from Artur Schnabel or Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode or Paul Lewis. But he has nothing to be ashamed of and much to be proud of. In the past I have had to turn off the CD player, I found Lang Lang’s playing so frustrating and clumsy. Not this time.

Not that this recital doesn’t have its shortcomings.

Take the Chopin group, three works surprisingly all in A-flat major.

I find his Chopin “Harp” Etude, slow and belabored in its attempt to be lyrical. In the other direction, I found his “Heroic” Polonaise a bit rushed or dispatched rather than stately and defiant. And the Waltz in A-flat, Op. 34, No. 1, while good, lacked both the elegant lilt and measured energy of, say, Arthur Rubinstein’s.

But the second half of the recital also has its strong points.

Prokofiev’s epic war-time Sonata No. 7 receives a respectable reading, and the virtuosic toccata finale is blistering enough to bring the staid Viennese audience to its feet.

Perhaps even more surprising is Lang Lang’s inclusion of the first book of Albeniz’ “Iberia,” an unusual, unexpected and daring repertoire choice for him and for Vienna. He shows a finesse in voicing with a strong left hand and the right balance in the composer’s complex mix of line and ornament.

Sony wanted Lang Lang badly and finally got him when last year it offered him a blank check and paid millions to get him to switch from Deutsche Grammophon.

Many critics, including myself, scoffed and thought it was all about publicity and profit. And, business being business, it still is in large part, which explains why there are so many different formats of this release. (Myself, I’d stick to the cheaper 2-CD set and not worry about the DVDs unless you are a Lang Lang fanatic.)

But it is also about serious music-making, captured with great engineering and the wonderful acoustics of the famed Golden Hall where he came, he played and he conquered.

My revised guess now is that Sony and Lang Lang, who is still only in his 20s, are going to have the last laugh. And to think he still has decades left to develop musically even more.

Maybe going wide before going deep or putting marketing before mastery wasn’t such a bad idea for the young pianist after all.

Anyway, whether you are a Lang Lang fan or a Lang Lang detractor, agree with me or disagree, let me know what you think of this new recording.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Want to kill classical music? Talk too much talk and use the wrong kind of program notes

August 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I’m all for artists discussing the classical music they are about to perform. It helps to educate listeners and often seems to relax the performers. Even seasoned listeners can find remarks about interpretation both illuminating and entertaining.

In Madison, I am particularly fond of pre-concert remarks by UW pianist Christopher Taylor, early music specialist Trevor Stephenson (below, explaining a fortepiano action) and Token Creek Festival co-director and composer John Harbison. All are incisive and witty presenters and well as first-rate performers.

Leonard Bernstein was perhaps the model of The Explainer.

But a good thing can be overdone — and is.

You can, in fact, kill classical music with too much talk. Or with esoteric and jargon-filled pre-concert lectures, radio commentary and program notes designed more for musicologists than for the general public.

Here is an interesting story and analysis I found on the Huffington Post web site:

Read it and see if you agree or disagree.

And let me and other readers know your opinion about the story and about what makes for good pre-concert remarks.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music mystery: What really killed Mozart? Take your pick of causes — just like the experts do

August 28, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

So what really killed Mozart?

The question lingers.

And the questions linger.

Was it poison?

Kidney disease or heart disease?

It is an area rife with speculation, fed by the loss of the 35-year-old genius who lived from 1750 to 1791.

And The New York Times this past week featured a good summary wrap-up.

In case you missed it, here is a link:

What is the theory you most favor about the cause of Wolfie’s death?

The Ear wants to hear.

But in the meantime, it seems worth repeating that the essence of Mozart, his legacy, is in the music, not the man.

So here are two excerpts of his Requiem in honor of him as he lived and composed — NOT how he died.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: You can now Twitter about and from “The Well-Tempered Ear”

August 28, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

In case you don’t realize it yet or didn’t see its recent arrival, there is a widget gizmo at the end of the comment section.

It allows you to send a Tweet on Twitter about The Well-Tempered Ear.

That way if you see a neew or old posting on the blog that you like, you can forward word of it to someone else or to many others.

You can help spread the word.

So ahead and give it a try.

Just go to the comment section near the top of a recent post — the Twitter option just started — and click in it to try it out.

And let me know if you find it as useful and workable as the staff at claim it is.

Good luck.

Happy Tweeting.

And please continue to read and reply.

You help make the blog what it is.

Best to you all,


Posted in Classical music

Classical music interview: Composer John Harbison discusses Theme and Variations before his Tuesday night lecture-recital at Token Creek Festival

August 27, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m., this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will feature a lecture-recital program that explores theme and variations.

Award-winning composer and festival co-director John Harbison (below), who teaches at MIT, will discuss the long-lived form with specific examples from music by Schubert (Variations in A-flat for piano, four hands), Roger Sessions (Sonata No. 1) and himself (Piano Sonata No. 2).

For information, here is a link to the festival – with information about tickets and directions – and a link to that particular program:

For myself, the enduring popularity or appeal of the theme and variations form can be explained in part because, like the sonata form and like the invention of polyphony, it works much the same way that human thought works.

I think you can look at theme and variations as a kind of algebra of sound, in which the formula “x times y equals z” can be permutated in so many different ways and yield so many results.

But what really matters is what Harbison, who uses the form, thinks. So he graciously agreed to a telephone interview about his lecture recital – to which tickets are still available –which will feature returning pianist Judith Gordon and new pianist Ryan McCullough (below).

Theme-and-Variations is common in all periods. Why did you choose the topic? Why is the form so long-lived and what is its appeal?

Part of it for us is that at Token Creek we do both jazz and concert music, and some of the layers overlap. Jazz improvisation is essentially variations, or ground- based like a passacaglia.

Variations are in every piece on every program this year. So we thought we would focus on the principle and see how it operates in music and in what ways it is meaningful as a developmental principle and follow it moment by moment.

The principal has been used in a very broad way. As a term, it is a little like blues. The blues is a specific chord pattern that is closely defined, a well-known harmonic form. But it is also a generic and large category of music that has emotional connotation that may or may not follow that form. Variations are the same way. Some are stricter and some are looser.

Brahms is the big change into Schoenberg because he uses variations on variations. Flexibility counts. It’s been successful as a way of presenting music because it offers listeners a way to follow the process through territory that without that anchor might seem very challenging.

What do you see as the larger purpose or meaning of theme and variations and their appeal to composers, performers and listeners?

Some composers have a mentality that draws them to them more than others. There are very good composers who get pleasure out of the form.

What are the points you want to make about the form in your remarks?

You can have variations with a theme; but you can also have variations without a theme that are still very strict. I’ll try to give people some historical background.

There are instances of the very old and the very new. Bach’s “Goldberg”s are one of the oldest examples. Certain composers made a real point of using theme and variations. There is Purcell, Bach, Haydn, rarely Mozart, Beethoven (who pushes the recognition issue hard that asks are we still hearing the theme and who is extremely interesting in pushing out the connections), Stravinsky and Webern (below) whose variations are a classic.

There continue to be interesting pieces involving theme and variations, including some of the composers at Tanglewood’s new music festival. In some pieces the variations are strictly worked out but there is no real theme.

Do you use it often in your own compositions?

I use it reasonably often but I almost always favor the form in which there is no given subject or theme. And the question, then, is: What is there? Certain patterns – harmonic and rhythmic — can be remembered.

I find it a rewarding form to write in. If you spend as much time playing jazz as I have, you’re very ingrained with the idea of elaborating on a ground.

Can you comment briefly on the specific works for this program?

Schubert has a tune and as a memory device that helps. But in some ways way what turns out to me more important is the harmonies. It’s a big guide to a listener. It presents a certain kind of logic to the listeners.

Anything you want to say or add about theme and variations or this lecture-recital?

There will be some examples of the players and some connections.

Roger Sessions (below) was my teacher, and Schubert was a favorite composer of his because of the harmonic invention and freedom.

Each composer is a variation on a theme of another composer.

Having a given element is not only interesting for the composer; it is also helpful for the listener.

*                    *                  *

Do you like theme and variations?

Is there particular set or composer whose work in that form you like or dislike?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Acclaimed Harvard pianist-scholar Robert Levin to open Token Creek Chamber Music Festival this Saturday and Sunday with Beethoven

August 26, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday at 4 p.m., the pianist-scholar Robert Levin, who teaches at Harvard, will open the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

(The 2010 festival, which runs from Aug. 28 through Sept. 5, takes place in DeForest in a restored and refurbished barn, below. It features two classical programs with two performances each; a lecture-recital; on Theme and Variations including music by Schubert, Roger Sessions and John Harbison; four jazz cabarets (of which three are sold out); and a closing concert of Bach works by Emmanuel Music of Boston.)

Robert Levin is a musician for all seasons.

He has completed Mozart’s unfinished Requiem and his version has been frequently performed and recorded several times.

He has recorded many Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos on the period instrument the fortepiano, to critical acclaim.

On the modern piano, he has recorded J.S. Bach’s English Suites and works by the 20th century French composer Henri Dutilleux.

At Token Creek he will perform an arrangement of Beethoven’s magisterial Piano Concerto No.4 for string quartet and piano (he has done similar arrangements of Mozart piano concertos in the past). He will also accompany Token Creek co-director Rose Mary Harbison is Beethoven’s fabulously beautiful Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.

For information about programs, tickets, directions and reservations, call 608-241-2525 or use this link:

The ever-busy Levin (below), current president of the International J.S. Bach Competition, was flying between Leipzig, Germany, the US and Taiwan. Nonetheless, he graciously agreed to an e-mail Q&A with The Ear:

Historically and artistically, what brought about these chamber arrangements of piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven? The lack of professional orchestras? The interest in Hausmusik?

In most cases such transcriptions were due to commercial considerations: sales of parts made money for publishers and composers.  In the case of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, such an arrangement made it possible for the dedicatee of the concerto (Prince Lobkowitz) to put on performances of the piece without hiring an orchestra.

How are these arrangements different or rewarding for you to play compared to your role as a performer of the regular orchestral versions? Do they work artistically as well as works of scholarship?

They are not at all works of scholarship, but utterly practical in their gestation and effect. Naturally the effect is more intimate in a chamber setting and more theatrical with orchestra.

In the case of the Mozart “arrangements,” the winds are merely omitted and not a note of the string or piano parts is changed.

In the case of the Beethoven/Pössinger arrangement of the Fourth Concerto, the five strings parts have to account for the essential orchestral texture; only the second movement, which calls for strings alone, requires no arrangement (by having both violas play the orchestral viola line).

But Beethoven rewrote numerous passages in the solo piano part, demanding a piano of wider range than the one for which the concerto was written (ascending beyond c”” to f””); many of the rewritten passages are considerably more virtuosic as well.

What would you like to public to know about or pay attention to in these arrangements or unknown works when you perform them?

A sense of novelty may draw an audience to such a performance, but it is the communicative power of the music that remains of primary importance.  Regarding details of the arrangement, see above.

What attracts you to unfinished and unknown works by the great masters? What lessons do we learn from them?

We learn not only a good deal about the compositional process, but we often find some of the most personal and characteristic ideas of a composer in works not pursued to their end.

Sometimes they are abandoned for qualitative reasons, in which case it is best to leave them undisturbed.

But often there are mere practical reasons (an expected performance fell through, or a commission that would bring in money immediately intervened) that account for the unfinished piece.

In such cases a speculative attempt at completion can give the listener a sense of what might have been, though of course it can never replace the hand of the genius.

As an expert and scholar, do you expect that a lot more unknown works or arrangements exist by Beethoven, Mozart and others (Haydn, Schubert, Bach, whomever) that are waiting to be discovered and revived?

Despite the ravages of war and the increased examination of the contents of public and private collections, hitherto unknown works continue to surface.  That will undoubtedly continue.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will end in a year or two

August 25, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival — a highly regarded and critically acclaimed summer fixture of Madison’s classical music scene for more than 20 years — is winding down and will end in a year or two, says co-director John Harbison.

The news comes on the eve of this year’s festival, which opens Saturday night and runs through Sept. 5.

“We are kind of winding down because it is getting harder to do with the other stuff we do. But we still get a lot of pleasure out of it,” Harbison told The Ear.

“We’re looking at the festival ending in a year or two,” Harbison added. “We’ve got a few loose ends, but not too many, of things we set out to do. There are a lot of little holes we would like to fill. We’re just trying to put together the logistics.”

As examples, Harbison singled out the festival’s on-going performances of Haydn’s piano trios and the fact that the cycle of J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos has been performed except for the first concerto.

“The time for ending may be coming and we don’t want to reach the state of some of these festivals we participated in where the board of directors suddenly votes the founders out — which happened in Santa Fe when we were there,” Harbison added.

The 71-year-old Harbison, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at MIT, co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (see the photo by Katrin Talbot below), who also performs at it.

The festival takes place in a handsomely refurbished barn (below) on the property – a large farm — where Rose Mary grew up and where John Harbison often comes to spend summers composing as well as directing the festival, which includes jazz as well as classical music.

John Harbison (below), who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant, is one of the best known, most prolific and most performed of contemporary American classical composers. He has been extremely busy with commissions for new works for major institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony, and regularly takes part teaching in the BSO’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which often programs Harbison’s own compositions.

He regularly performs as principal guest conductor with Emmanuel Music of Boston, members of which will perform an all-Bach concert at this year’s festival, and served as an interim guest director of that group for the past three years.

Here is a link to his impressive Wikipedia entry:

In addition, it is no secret that the Token Creek Festival, which often features fare out of the mainstream, has faced difficult times financially in the past and has at times fallen short of attendance goals.

This year’s festival, like others in the past, features returning and new artists, and old and new music.

Here is a link to information about the dates, programs, performers, tickets and background:

If you are interested in experiencing the festival, this year’s offerings might be a smart time to start attending, now that the festival’s end seems to loom on the horizon and future concerts will be limited.

What is your reaction to the news about the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival?

What kind of experiences have you had at the Token Creek Chamber Musical Festival?

Is there anything you want to say to John and Rose Mary Harbison?

The Ear wants to hear.

Tomorrow: Scholar-pianist Robert Levin talks about playing Beethoven this weekend at Token Creek

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Madison writer recounts the life and career of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in “Serving Genius.” Part 2 of 2

August 24, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I think I heard the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini live only once. It was during the now defunct Festival of The Lakes in Madison, and the major work he guest conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was Beethoven’s famous “Eroica” Symphony No. 3.

Even though I generally prefer edgier interpretations in Beethoven, there was something special – something luminous and poetic – about the interpretation I heard that night in the old Civic Center.

Now, many years later, I understand what I heard a lot more, thanks to “Serving Genius,” a new biography of Giulini by Madison writer Thomas D. Saler. (The 256-page book, with 11 photographs, is published by the University of Illinois Press and sells for $35 hardbound.)

Saler has done an admirable job of gathering and then analyzing facts. One not only learns the details of Giulini’s fascinating life but also the “secrets” of his special art, including his use of a “spacious beat” and his insistence on performing and recording only works that he felt a special affinity for.

Unlike many conductors working today, Giulini was the opposite of a wholesaler. But his relatively small repertoire was worked and reworked until he left a special stamp on it. And that was the source of the admiration and acclaim for Giulini from critics, players and the public.

I found Saler’s biography extremely readable and extremely informative. Plus, he was accessible, avoiding the kind of music jargon that makes some book-length studies tedious and impenetrable.

I asked Saler to discuss his book. This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with Saler.

How would you place Giulini among other great conductors of the 20th century? What characteristics drew you to him or put you off?

There have been only a relative handful of conductors who left a meaningful artistic imprint on their performances, and I’d put Giulini in that group.

Many times, what you hear is simply the virtuosity of the individual players. But Giulini made a difference — he was a conductor in the truest sense. At every moment, his gestures precisely reflected his musical intent.

He was not a metronomic time-beater or a “traffic cop” who merely kept order; Giulini’s purpose was to make music that touched the soul, and that was only going to happen by giving the music time to breathe and by manipulating tension and sonority between beats.

Giulini (below) once said that when something speaks to your soul, you remember it. That was his objective, and his performances did that. The ending of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” is a fitting description of Giulini’s artistry: “The music in my heart I bore long after it was heard no more.”

You did not include a discography. Is there a reason for that? Do you have a favorite recording(s)?

Since many of Giulini’s recordings are out of print, I didn’t think a discography would be particularly useful for readers. In addition, the Internet makes finding available titles quite easy.

However, as the question has been raised on several occasions, I plan on adding a discography if there’s a second printing of the book. I’m also exploring the possibility of posting a discography on the book’s page found on the University of Illinois Press website.

Among my favorite Giulini recordings are his Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” and Verdi and Faure Requiems with the Philharmonia; the Dvorak “New World” and Mahler symphonies nos. 1 and 9 with Chicago; and the Beethoven “Eroica” with Los Angeles. A recent release of a live 1973 performance with Kyung-Wha Chung and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto is revelatory.

There was a significant transformation in Giulini’s musical style over the roughly quarter-century that these recordings cover. His early performances have a distinctly Dionysian feel while “late Giulini” is unmistakably Apollonian.

Some observers consider the middle period — when the Dionysian and Apollonian forces were in perfect balance — to be his prime. But the fact that they’re all effective shows that when a great artist has something important to say, there’s no single “right” way to say it.

Are you an avid classical music fan? Do you have other musical books in the making?

Classical music is a passion of mine and goes to the heart of who I am. I sang in the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus for 18 years and have many wonderful memories of those performances. For two hours, I was so entranced by the music that the imperfect world lurking outside the hall was a shock to my system when the concert was over.

In addition to supporting and enjoying the many fine arts groups in town — the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, among others — I strongly recommend that local music lovers head east to hear the Milwaukee Symphony. Edo de Waart is an excellent conductor and the musicians are world-class.

Regarding new projects, I have more ideas than time to make them happen. But stay tuned!

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Madison writer recounts the life and career of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in “Serving Genius.” Part 1 of 2

August 23, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

I think I heard the great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini perform live only once. It was during the now defunct Festival of The Lakes in Madison, and the major work he guest conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was Beethoven’s famous “Eroica” Symphony No. 3.

Even though I generally prefer edgier interpretations of Beethoven, there was something special – something luminous and poetic – about the interpretation I heard that night in the old Civic Center.

Now, many years later, I understand what I heard a lot more, thanks to “Serving Genius,” a new biography of Giulini by Madison writer Thomas D. Saler. (The 256-page book, with 11 photographs, is published by the University of Illinois Press and sells for $35 hardbound.)

Saler has done an admirable job of gathering and then analyzing facts. One not only learns the details of Giulini’s fascinating private life but also the “secrets” of his special art, including his use of a “spacious beat” and slower tempi, hu is humanist approach, his endless attention to small details and his insistence on performing and recording only works that he felt a special affinity for.

Unlike many conductors working today, Giulini was the opposite of a wholesaler. But his relatively small repertoire was worked and reworked until he left a special stamp on it. And that was the source of the admiration and acclaim for Giulini from critics, players and the public. Giulini’s leadership was also why the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now much discussed under Gustavo Dudamel, finally became a world-class orchestra

I found Saler’s biography well written and extremely readable as well as highly informative. Plus, the book is accessible, avoiding the kind of music jargon that makes some book-length studies of composers and performers tedious and impenetrable.

I asked Saler to discuss his book. This is the first of a two-art Q&A with Saler that will be posted today and tomorrow.

Please tell us something about yourself and your background as it relates to Madison.

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and lived there after college until I moved to Madison about ten years ago. In the 1960s, I attended two summer music clinics offered on campus by the University of Wisconsin. During one of those years, my band director was a very young Michael Leckrone, two months before he became a Badger. My wife Mary — who skillfully edited the manuscript and provided invaluable encouragement and suggestions — and I both love the quality of life in Madison and its vibrant arts community.

You usually write about finances. Why did you decide to do a biography of conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and how did it get started? How much original research did you have to do?

I was a piano performance major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but my first love always has been orchestral conducting. While my fellow piano majors were putting in their obligatory eight hours at the keyboard each day, I was studying Mahler scores and practicing conducting, which I learned from James Found, my high school orchestra director, and Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s former music director. As a high school student, Schermerhorn was my inspiration; taking an exhaustive master class from him at age 17 was an unforgettable experience.

I wrote “Serving Genius” because, in the words of Gerald Stein, a Chicago-based psychotherapist and music journalist, Giulini (below) was both great and good. That’s a rare combination, and one that appeals to me. Giulini had minimal ego; he was dedicated to causes greater than himself.

He lived in a Rome sewer for nine months during World War II rather than kill another human being or fight for something he abhorred; he left his post as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic so he could help his ailing wife. When he was on the podium, his purpose was to serve music, not himself.

Besides admiring him as a person, I felt a deep connection to Giulini’s musical style, which emphasized poetic lyricism and what happened between the beats. In 1973, I sat just a few feet away from him as he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Mahler Symphony No.1; to this day, the visceral impact of that performance still resonates within me.

Giulini’s orchestras played with the intensity and flexibility of a chamber group, yet with the majesty and power of a 100-piece ensemble. Every note, every phrase, every section was shaped, and the tension was constantly manipulated to carry the audience along. (Giulini, below, is rehearsing the string section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

A Giulini performance had an emotional and spiritual power that was unique because he was an artist and a poet with the conducting technique to communicate his vision. He was a master of the art of the gesture.

Aside from referencing oral histories and concert reviews, nearly all of the research is original. I felt honored to interview many great musicians. The journey took five years, and every step along the way was a labor of love.

Of all the musicians and individuals you interviewed for the book, are there any that are particularly memorable, and why?

It was a thrill — and quite enlightening — to talk with Itzhak Perlman about Giulini, and about performance aspects in general. I interviewed some of the best musicians, journalists, and administrators in the world, and all were eager to share stories about Giulini. Their observations were exceptionally insightful.

From an emotional standpoint, one interview stands out. I traveled to Los Angeles to meet Ernest Fleischmann, the brilliant former executive director of the LA Philharmonic and the man who, against all odds, persuaded Giulini to become his orchestra’s music director. Fleishmann was in declining health at the time and has since passed away, but sitting in his living room — which is across the street from Giulini’s former home in the Hollywood Hills — talking about conductors and music-making was an experience I’ll never forget.

Then I spent two hours in Giulini’s former residence (Saler, below on the balcony)  before attending a Philharmonic performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the ultra-modern embodiment of Fleischmann’s vision and persistence. Driving to and from those events, I listened to Giulini’s LA Phil recording of the “Eroica.” Money can’t buy what I took away from that day.

Were there any challenges you faced in writing this book?

Much of the archival material came from old Italian newspapers and magazines, which meant tracking them down and having them translated. Plus, Giulini was a very private person who didn’t seek the limelight; he did not have a library that might have provided “one-stop shopping” for doing research. I also was working full-time as a freelancer, so I was juggling many different projects while working on “Serving Genius.”

What has the reception by the critics and the public been so far?

The book has garnered excellent notices, including those from the Chicago Tribune and Opera News. Some excerpts and links are posted on the University of Illinois Press website at

I’ve also received very positive feedback from musicians who performed with Giulini and others who knew him well. They’ve assured me that the man I described is the man they knew. Those comments mean a lot to me.

Tomorrow: Giulini’s rank among great conductors of the 20th-century, favorite Giulini recordings and future music projects

Posted in Classical music
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