The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Master classes teach students and the public but should stress musicality over virtuosity

November 30, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

I hate playing in public.

And I hate being criticized, especially in public.

So participating in a master class would be my idea of Hell on Earth – or, at least, Hell in a concert hall.

Luckily, not everyone shares those feelings or fears.

That means that much of the public can benefit from the free master classes often held at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

That’s where (usually in Morphy Recital Hall (below), various local presenters including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, share the talent of soloists with students and the public.

And so it is that in recent years I, an avid amateur pianist, have heard pianists Murray Perahia, Leon Fleisher, Olga Kern and Stephen Hough. All proved valuable.

On Nov. 19 I went to a master class held by pianist Randall Hodgkinson (below in a photo by Susan Cook), who was in town from Boston (he teaches at Wellesley College and the New England Conservatory of Music) to perform with the Gramercy Trio on the UW’s Guest Artists Series, free concerts that frequently also feature master classes in strings, voice, winds and brass.

You can learn a lot from master classes – how to practice, how to play, how to perform, how to listen, how to make sense of a piece of music.

So let me up front express my gratitude not only to Hodgkinson, but also to the UW graduate students who agreed to participate.

Pianist Sung Ho Yang (below) stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Jiyoung Noh. Noh was supposed to play Liszt’s “St. Francis of Paolo Walking on the Waves,” but Yang instead played Liszt’s fiendishly difficult and showy “Reminiscences of Don Juan,” which is also known as the “Don Juan Fantasy.”

Then came pianist Yoo-Ri Hong (below), who played the Andante and Prestissimo volando movements from Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 30.

Finally came a quintet (below) — violinists Roy Meyer and Laura Mericle, violist Andrew Vollmer (not pictured), cellist Alison Rowe and pianist Robert Logan — playing the opening movement of Brahms’ fabulously beautiful Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.

For two hours, Hodgkinson proved a tactful, insightful and congenial teacher who respected the students even as he made suggestions.

With the Liszt piece, he showed how to turn virtuosity into music, and suggested how slower playing can give the impression of faster playing, and how phases need to be shaped especially in a glitzy piece so dependent on technique and boatloads of notes as the Liszt fantasy. Listeners, he stressed, have to hear details to appreciate the physical feat of the performance. And they should be charmed, not overwhelmed.

With Scriabin, Hodgkinson (below) stressed allowing the audience to hear the novelty of Scriabin’s harmonies and the importance of rhythmic drive over melodic tunes. That means also paying attention to the acoustics of the hall or performance space. He also stressed conflicting counterpoint and the idea that making music is another way of making sense, not just sound. You must allow the listener to feel the off beats and hear the rests.

With the Brahms quintet, he rightly stressed ensemble balance, tempi and dynamics in creating and projecting expressivity. He wanted each player to know when to pull back and when to go out front. “Make each note count” he advised adding that the harmonics of each part are not the same and should not be played as the same.

He was convincing and even though only the Brahms is a favorite piece of mine, I took away lessons from all the players and the pieces, mostly about shaping a phrase and the idea that each note should come from somewhere and go to somewhere, that continuity matters above all else.

But I also found myself wondering: Why don’t some master class students play smaller, less ambitious or less difficult works? My guess is that they and the audience would benefit a great deal from plumbing the depths of a “little” Brahms intermezzo or a Chopin mazurka or a Schubert impromptu or a Bach prelude and fugue rather than some big virtuoso piece.

Doing that might also allow undergraduate piano students to take part and allow amateurs to explore the repertoire they play.

Of course, too often the whole master class set-up lends itself to a kind of show-off aesthetic in which the temptation is to boast of one’s skill by proving one’s virtuosity over musicality.

But education is the primary point and purpose, and the focus should indeed be on musicality, not on trying to impress either the teacher or the audience.

But however it is done, I am deeply grateful to the UW School of Music and to the various arts presenters for offering these free open master classes; to the performers who conduct them; and, most of all, the to brave and talented students I respect for putting themselves on the line in public. Thank you.

Do you go to master classes?

Do you participate in them?

What do you think of them?

How could they be improved?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Metropolitan Opera diva Angela Brown talks about holiday music, her career, repackaging opera and working with John DeMain

November 29, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Music is always an integral part of the holidays, and some of it has already taken place. The Christmas Lights concerts by the Oakwood Chamber Players and the Holiday Pops Concerts in Middleton by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (which will also offer Handel’s “Messiah” later in the month) are chief among them.

But no doubt the single biggest event in Madison comes this weekend, when the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus (both below) will be joined by Metropolitan Opera soprano Angela Brown, making her Madison debut, for the annual Christmas Spectacular.

The concert, under the baton of unabashed Christmas fan John DeMain (below top), will include other local performers, specifically the Madison Youth Chorus and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir (below bottom, in a photo by Bob Rashid).

Caroling in the lobby before the concert will also take place.

Classical composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel and Vaughan Williams will be featured, as will the world premiere of Madison composer Taras Nahirniak’s “Gloria in Excelsis” and popular Christmas songs and carols plus an audience sing-along.

Here is a link to find out more: Program Notes

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

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

You can see Angela Brown in this CNN interview at the MSO website:

And at her home website:

Recently, Angela Brown (below) returned from Europe and offered The Ear an upfront candid and humorous e-mail interview:

For you, what is the relationship between listening to and making music and celebrating the holidays?

Holiday music is such special music because it brings back memories – memories of family, childhood, school functions and also preparing for cantatas and holiday musical performances.  I love and enjoy singing the music of Christmas because it keeps me connected to family, friends, faith and special holiday traditions.

What is your favorite music for the holidays now? When you were young?

In my family, we always had the tradition of playing Lena Horne’s “Merry.”  And it is still being played in my home today at Christmas time.  We also loved the Vince Guaraldi “Charlie Brown” Christmas music, Christmas R and B music from The Temptations, and my newest favorite is “Christmas Fantasy” by Anita Baker.

My favorite Christmas pieces to perform are “O Holy Night” (see and listen below) and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and two of my favorite Christmas standards are “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.”

You have a blossoming career. What are some of the operatic roles, Aida and others, and other projects (TV, radio) or concerts and opera appearances you will be doing in the future?

Well, I just finished a brand new, live recording of my show called “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” (below). It will be available for download starting Wednesday at  In that show I try to demystify opera by singing some favorite arias from my repertoire and breaking down the plot and characters for my audience in a very real way.

I try to help them relate to the characters as real people because opera is about real people.  Yes, some of the plots are like Swiss cheese — you can see right through them — but the characters are everyday people from all walks of life and cultures.

I have upcoming performances with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony; Verdi Requiems with the Kalamazoo Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic. My next opera role is Aida (below) with Hamburg Opera. And I have been asked to sing for the televised production of “The Trumpet Awards.”

Have you worked with conductor John DeMain (below) before? Do you have anything to say about him, Madison or the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

Yes, I have worked with Maestro DeMain.  The first time I worked with him I was very intimidated because it was my first “Porgy and Bess” in the role of Serena, and he is the master of “Porgy and Bess” in my world.  I remember being very nervous and wanting to be correct.

During the rehearsal time of my first Serena, I became very emotionally involved in singing the aria “My man’s gone now.”  I looked down in the pit and saw Maestro DeMain rolling his eyes and he said to the orchestra, “Oh, Lord, she’s crying!” He was very patient and kind with me and he has shown me the ropes as far as singing that role.

Since then, I have worked with him in California and seen him on several occasions socially. We have always had a pleasant exchange. I no longer fear him, but I definitely respect his baton.  This is my debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and I hope to return many more times!

How do you think more young listeners, and especially non-white ethnic minorities, can be attracted to Western classical music and opera?

First of all, we should stop thinking of potential audiences as non-white or white or minorities or whatever and just think of them as people. Opera is about ALL peoples of the world — Asian, Spanish, American, African, Italian, etc. Be regular. Be real. Be engaging.

My show “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” is my way of doing just that.  It demystifies opera for audiences that normally wouldn’t go — and that’s not just minority audiences.  There are a lot white folks that don’t like opera.  You have to make it so they can see themselves there.

Opera is what it is — originally a European art form — but the problem lies in how it is presented.  It can be made palatable to an audience that is not European and you can make it something more people will want to use their expendable dollars on.  It’s entertainment.  It’s not that deep. When people are intrigued by something, they will go.  It’s all in the marketing.

For example, the title of my show is intriguing – “Opera … from a Sistah’s Point of View” and gets you in the door. I just happen to be African-American and am exposed to something that usually has a monochromatic audience.  But then I tell the plots in a way that is palatable, tongue-in-cheek fun, but is STILL opera.  The subject matter and music are not watered down but I present it in the vernacular so that people can relate to it and want to attend.

Opera needs to be changed — and I’m not talking about changing music or plot — by changing its delivery to make it more appealing to the masses.

Was there a turning point in your youth or career – a specific piece or performer or teacher or recording – when you knew you wanted to be a professional opera singer?

It was after I was already studying opera and had won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  When I finally made it to the finals — after the third try – I walked onto the stage floorboards, touched the curtain and I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.  I started taking it seriously because everyone else was taking me seriously.

What advice would you give young musicians who want to make music a career?

Never let anyone determine success for you.  Your success is not going to look like everyone else’s success.  Have a passion for your work regardless if you get paid.  Reality is that we want to be paid.  But, would you do this for free and work another job?  Above all else, believe in yourself.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Allow me to paraphrase something from the Bible: “Be happy and prosper. But above all, be happy.” No matter how well you sing, or can turn a phrase or a trill, if you are not happy, it doesn’t mean anything. While you’re trying to have a career, make sure you’re having a life. Be happy, be blessed. Happy Holidays!

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: More news from Madison – composer John Harbison is busy and The Ear tops 100,000

November 28, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

As I noted in last Friday’s post, last week was a busy week, full of news for classical music fans in Madison.

Here are two more tidbits:


During a pre-concert talk for the Madison Symphony Orchestra last Sunday afternoon, the prize-winning composer John Harbison (below), who has local ties, let some cats out of the bag.

He’s being a busy man. Indeed, that same day, he was at the MSO for his “Great Gatsby” Suite and then at the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra concert for his homage to the jazz great Mary Lou Williams.

But much, much more is in store.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine, a Harbison fan who commissioned his opera “The Great Gatsby,” will do two-year retrospective of all Harbison’s symphonies. The BSO says that means six symphonies – that in turn means Harbison is now composing a sixth one for the series since he has five symphonies to his credit.

He is also composing a major string quartet (No. 5) for the centennial year of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), one that is apparently based on medieval chant or sounds.

He will also be composing a violin and piano work for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

He notes that the Token Creek Chamber Festival for next hasn’t yet set its schedule. But he and his violinist wife Rosemary Harbison who are co-director are leaning toward a mixed concert of J.S.Bach (The Ear is betting another Brandenburg Concerto is in store) and will do some more Haydn piano trios, a cycle the festival has been exploring.

All that, and Harbison still talks about music with more succinctness, accessibility and insight than anyone else The Ear has ever heard. I would love to see Harbison do a Leonard Bernstein-type book about the major aspects of the major composers.

Not that he is busy doing other things.


Finally, let it be noted that this past week, The Well-Tempered Ear passed the 100,000 mark — with the help of readers form around the world and without being affiliated with any newspaper or magazine.

That’s a lot of hits in 15 months. Please feel free to pass along any tips for stories and reviews and well as suggestions for what you want to read. And of course pass along the blog address and subscription widget to others.

And, dear readers, thank you, thank you.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Men who sing like women go mainstream; Julie Andrews to host PBS’ New Year’s Day in Vienna; more Vivaldi is discovered; the Atlanta Symphony to record itself; and the laws of physics give us moody music.

November 27, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Post-Thanksgiving seems a good times for another edition of The Ear’s Saturday edition of News Clips.

So here are a few:


It started with Alfred Deller (below top) and went through David Daniels (below middle) and Bejan Mehta (below bottom). Countertenors are going mainstream and making a big comeback in beautiful baroque works by Bach. Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi. Consider phenom Philippe Jarrousky:

Why not tell The Ear who you think is the best countertenor? And in what piece?


Julie Andrews (below, back in “The Sound of Music” and now)) will host PBS’ New Year’s Day Live From Vienna for the third time:


Like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra annd many others, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (below) has launched its own label. The move marks the 10th anniversary of conductor and music director Robert Spano who has used new music to breathe new life in the orchestra:

Here’s a great NPR piece about it. Listen other the audio version, not just read the transcript, if you can:


How do the laws physics music give us moods in music:


Two sonata by Vivaldi (below) are discovered and receive a partial world premiere:

Posted in Classical music

It’s Black Friday: Here are classical music CD gift guides

November 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Black Friday.

It sounds bad – like some kind of stock market crash — but it’s really good. The name means it’s the one day of the year, heading into the holiday shopping season, when a lot of retailers rely on shoppers to put them and their profits into the black for the year.

So people will be shopping. Most will do it in person in so-called “bricks and mortar” stores and in malls where experts predict a 2 to 3 percent increase in sales over last year.

But many gift-givers will shop on-line, and started yesterday or Cyber Thursday.  (Experts predict an 11 percent increase in Internet sales over last year.)

For classical music fans, how do you find the right recording for the right person? What do you think are reliable guides you trust?

For many listeners, is the first on-line choice. They list new releases by the week, and they also feature User Reviews:

But how reliable do you find them to be? I find them uneven – some are very good and some seem oddly quirky or untrustworthy at best.

You can also go to lists in the Listmania section and see if they are helpful. You can find a list of classical music for Metalheads or the Best Classical CDs Ever. Here’s an example:

Another good source is:

This source is good for older issues as well as new releases and is quite detailed in the remarks that include comparisons to other performers and recordings:

Gramophone magazine (below) is a vintage source, since it has been around since 1923. But many observers say it tends to favor British artists and labels. Still, it is highly respected and names its Best of the Month as well as Best of the Year.

Critics at the New York Times just published their Best Of 2010 list:

At some point soon, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers will also publish out their critics’ choice of the Best Classical Recordings of 2010. I’ll pass them along as I find them. You can do them same for me.

Here’s another source:

Another British magazine, produced by the BBC,  is also a standard:

Or you might try an old American favorite, Fanfare magazine:

National Public Radio also has Tom Huizenga, who features CD reviews:

Do you have a favorite source for finding classical recordings reviews?

What do you like or dislike about the ones I’ve named.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music tribute: On Thanksgiving Day let us give thanks for the people who do the hard work of making beautiful music

November 25, 2010
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To mark Thanksgiving Day, here is a special post by a frequent guest critic and writer on The Ear, John W. Barker (below).

Today seems the perfect occasion for it – a time to honor the people who make music whether they are students, amateurs or professionals, whether they do it in a home, a school, a place of worship or a concert hall.

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Madison’s swelling of schedule cultural overload reached a climax the weekend of November 20-21. There was a great handful of events, any and all of which I ached to attend.

That was problem enough, but on top of it I had to be out of town for the weekend, and thus would miss everything.

I found some solace, however, in attending, on two successive evenings, the final rehearsals for two of these events, thanks to the kindness of their directors.  They happened to give me a respective focus on the two towering geniuses of the late Baroque — Handel and J.S Bach.

On the one hand, there was the UW Choral Union, under Beverly Taylor, preparing a performance of Handel’s unique oratorio, “Israel in Egypt,” in the UW’s Mills Hall. (Below is an excerpt – the closing solo and chorus with soprano Emily Birsan, tenor James Doing and the UW Chamber Orchestra – from the second of two performances.)

This curiously experimental work of 1739 is not a true oratorio, in the sense of a sacred drama with characters and a plot. It is rather a vast ode, setting a string of texts from the Old Testament that generally reflect on the escape of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

I have long considered it the greatest major choral work ever written, in terms of choral sound. In this work, it’s the chorus that matters. The six fine vocal soloists (here, of faculty and student ranks) really provide only brief interludes between the torrential unfolding of Handel’s choral splendor, one movement after another. Backed by a very able student chamber orchestra (with properly opposed first and second violins), the true protagonist was the huge Choral Union, mighty in sound, but kept under remarkable discipline by Taylor.

On the other hand, there was Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians, preparing a group of three sacred cantatas by Bach (BWV 4, 104, and 196) for performance at Grace Episcopal Church.

Stephenson’s forces for this consisted of a small choir of eight singers, plus about a dozen period-instrument players. The cantatas chosen benefit from this scaled-down approach, while the intimate and atmospheric church venue provides an ideal setting.

(Below is the final chorus from Cantata, BWV 196, “The Lord Remembers Us.”)

For both of these rehearsals, I used the term “final” rather than “dress.” They were not fully polished run-throughs of the program from A to Z.

These were rather working rehearsals, fixing things right down to the wire. All the music was given, but with many stops and starts, repetitions and adjustments.

Now, attending these rehearsals renewed my long conviction that people who attend performance events can never fully appreciate what goes into them without some personal experience of the preparation of such events.

Experience either in actually doing some performance work, or at in least attending some rehearsals – to see all the otherwise invisible people or advance effort that go into them the finished performances.

Those sessions are where the real work is done. The actual performances are almost anti-climactic, in terms of dealing with the mechanics of works.

Thus, in both these rehearsals, a lot of time is spent on details never evident in the final performances, going over such details endlessly. (What fun to see the soloists going over with conductor and orchestra their personal cadential embellishments!) Balances, both musical and acoustical, must constantly be challenged and resolved — especially with the MBM, where one stood or sat and when.

Different ensembles require different kinds of rehearsing. For such giant forces as the Choral Union, the authoritative leadership of the conductor–a kind of musical traffic cop–is required. In the case of the MBM, however, while Stephenson is the group’s director, he is not in any sense its conductor. He organizes things, and “leads” in the continuo from the harpsichord.

But his performers are musicians he knows well and has worked with regularly, and who have worked with each other. They are colleagues rather than subordinates, exchanging ideas or suggestions and sharing the final shaping of the ultimate results.

Beyond the purposes they serve for performers themselves, rehearsals can also teach the layman much. I invariably learn so more about the music by seeing how it is put together for performance. And I come to understand the talents of these performers more fully when I can watch them at work, in the laborious, if glorious, task of bringing great music to life.

Such experiences I warmly commend to music lovers who want to deepen their musical sensitivities.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Nov. 24-30 features lots of early music and holiday fare

November 24, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Fall Semester is wrapping up and the holidays are fast upon us, officially kicked off with the “Black Friday” shopping extravaganza.

Over the year’s one of the reliable holiday staples – so popular it gets two performances on the same day – is the “Winter Lights” program by the Oakwood Chamber Players. Another favorite is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s holiday pops concerts in Middleton.

And don’t forget the radio and TV, especially public radio and TV, which will feature a lot in the coming weeks.


Because of Thanksgiving, there is NO Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society.

At 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, the Oakwood Chambers Players  (below) will perform its “Winter Lights” (Celebratory Clearing) program in the auditorium at Oakwood West Auditorium at 6206 Mineral Point Road on Madison’s far west side.

The program features audience favorites plus new works and a guest singer.

Tickets for concerts can be purchased at the door.  Ticket prices are $20 for general admission, with special prices of $15 for senior citizens and $5 for students. Cash and personal checks are accepted, but NOT credit cards.

If you have questions about any of the concerts, call and use the voice mail at (608) 230-4316.

For more information, visit:

In Beloit at 7:30 p.m., in the Eaton Chapel of Beloit College, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble peforms.  See Saturday’s listings.


At 8 p.m. in the historic Gates of Heaven synagogue in James Madison Park, 300 East Gorham Street., the early music group the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performs.

The program features Cello Sonata No. 1 by Vivaldi and Cello Sonata No. 2 by Geminiani; the canon for two cellos by D. Gabrielli; Handel’s cantata “Nice che fa?”; Bach’s aria “Betorte Welt”; Blavet;s flute sonata, Op. 2, No. 4; and selections from J.S Bach‘s “Well-Tempered Klavier.”

Tickets at the door are $15 general admission, $10 for students.

(In Beloit on Friday night, tickets at the door are $10 per person, $15 per couple, students free.)

For more information, visit:

For information about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Holiday Middleton Pops Concert, at 8 p.m. at the Madison Marriott West, visit:

The WCO (below) will also have guest singer soloists and the Middleton High School Chorus will be featured.


At 1 p.m. the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra holiday pops concert repeats. See Saturday’s listing and visit:

Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen welcomes soprano Susan Bender and pianist Michael Keller on Sunday, November 28, at 12:30-2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art. The concert will be broadcast live by Wisconsin Public Radio.

The performance will feature a variety of pieces by different composers like Franz Schubert’s “Vier Conzonen,” D. 688; Claude Debussy’s “Paysage sentimental”; and Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs,” Opus 29.

Susan Bender is Associate Professor of Voice at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.  Bender has performed with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and many more.

Michael Keller was a Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point until his retirement in May of 2008.  As a soloist he has performed in numerous concert series including Dame Myra Hess Series and St. Martin in the Fields, London, England.

Members of the Chazen Museum of Art or Wisconsin Public Radio can call ahead and reserve seats for Sunday Afternoon Live performances. Seating is limited. All reservations must be made Monday through Friday before the concert and claimed by 12:20 p.m. on the day of the performance. For more information or to learn how to become a museum member, contact the Chazen Museum at 608.263.2246.

A reception follows the performance, with refreshments generously donated by Fresh Madison Market, Coffee Bytes and Fair Trade Coffee House. A free docent-led tour in the Chazen galleries begins every Sunday at 2 p.m.


At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the UW Early Music Ensemble under director Jeanne Swack (below), will perform works by Castello, Frescobaldi, Carr, Petri, Barbara Strozzi, Telemann and Handel.

Participants are Emily Worzalla, Karen Bishop and Jennifer Sams, sopranos; Jeanne Swack, recorder; Kristen Davies, baroque flute; Brian Ellingboe, baroque bassoon; Doug Lindsey, cornetto; Emily Fox, natural horn; Lauren Basney, baroque violin; Elias Goldstein, baroque viola; Kirsten Ihde, harpsichord and organ; and Richard Adams and Greg Schultz, harpsichord.

Admission is free and open to the public.

Posted in Uncategorized

Classical music: Viennese composer and Holocaust survivor Hans Gal is a modern-day Haydn who is finally getting rediscovered and recorded. Part 2 of 2.

November 23, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Sunday marked the start of Kenneth Woods Week – which will have a couple of interruptions or different posts for variety — on The Ear.

Woods is a many of many talents, interests and projects.

He is a good friend of the blog.

But more importantly, he is a distinguished graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Music who is becoming a major player on the world music scene (see Sunday’s post for details) and he is engaged in a major multi-year project: the rediscovery and revival of the Viennese composer Hans Gal. (The Ear would like to see the Madison Symphony Orchestra engage this native son for a guest stint and have him bring some Gal to Madison.)

As an introduction, here is a link to a biographical sketch of Gal, whom I expect we will hear performed more and more in the coming years, thanks in no small part to Woods and AVIE Records:

Woods (below) gave The Ear an extended interview about Gal that I am running in two parts. Today is Part 2.

Hans Gal lived a long time, from 1890 to 1987. Are there phases or periods to his work? What was his range of genres?

Gal is one of those rare talents who wrote well in just about every genre — there are operas, four symphonies, concertos for violin, piano and cello, works for solo piano (wonderfully recorded by Leon McCawley, below), string quartets, string trios and on and on. He also wrote for unusual instruments like mandolin (listen to the excerpt at the end) and viola d’amore. So far, just about every piece I’ve looked at or heard is good.

His music did evolve — the early works are more intense and extrovert. Around the beginning of the 1930’s he starts to take away some of that post-Romantic excess, and the Violin Concerto (below) is maybe the first major work in this new style. However, the Concerto, while being more elegant than some of his earlier music, is still full of a rather succulent post-Romantic harmonic language. There are some really tasty harmonies.

Even by the Concertino for Violin and Strings, written six years later, I feel like he is distilling the music to another level of clarity. The harmonies are less of their time and more uniquely his. By the Triptych, written in 1970, he’s found a really timeless language — the Violin Concerto could only have been written in the 30’s, but the Triptych? Anytime between 1880 and now!

His last works were the Fugues for solo piano, written when he was 93 — they could be by Bach, but only if Bach had heard Mahler.

Why is Gal worth rediscovering and performing?

The music has its own powerful intrinsic value. It’s worth hearing for the pleasure and transcendence it offers.

Beyond that, I think today we can see that one of the many tragedies of World War II was the extinguishing of this great, unbroken and unequaled line of musical tradition from Bach to Richard Strauss and Mahler. Most of the musicians who would have continued that tradition were executed in Auschwitz — Krasa, Ullmann, Klein and Haas would have been the next generation. Gál (below) survived, and in spite of his obscurity, thrived and developed as an artist, who found a very personal way of responding to the events of his time.

You have performed and recorded Gals’ work. What are the reactions of the critics, the public and the performers to his music?

I would say that almost every time I do a Gál work with or for people who don’t know the music, there is a sense in most of them that, while they are open to it, they assume there must be some reason his music is largely unknown.

From there, it’s easy to see the lightness and elegance of his music, the Haydn-esque qualities, as being indicative of a lack of substance, when, in fact, there is tons of substance there. However, every time I’ve done a Gál piece, I’ve been struck by how enthusiastic everyone is by the end.

One thing that is also consistent among performers is a certain level of shock at the virtuoso nature of the music — it’s much more difficult than it looks or sounds.

Do you have favorite works of Gal (below, young), or works you think are a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with him?

He was a remarkably consistent composer. The important thing with Gál is to hear the music well-played. One comment I heard early on from his daughter was that a second-rate performance of a work by Gál makes first-rate music sound fourth-rate.

I think the three discs in the AVIE series are all at least well recorded and well performed, and the music is all beautiful. Beyond, that, the best way to get to know the music is to play it or hear it performed. It’s almost all in print now, so I hope a lot of young musicians will start looking at the chamber music now. The string quartets and trios are fantastic.

What do you think – or hope – will be the future of Gal’s music going forward?

I gave a preview copy of the new disc to a friend in the industry. He wrote back a kind note saying the usual things — nice disc, et al. Months later, I ran in to him and he had become a Gál nut.

I think that if we can get more of the music out there in good recordings, it will give a lot of joy to many listeners. We’re starting a series of recordings of the four symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan in December, and we’re also planning to record the two string trios with my group Ensemble Epomeo next spring.

It’s not easy. Every new disc involves overcoming a lot of economic challenges, which has become harder than ever. Donating to the Hans Gal Society’s recording fund can really help. In the next 10 years, I’d love to see all the major works out there in good recordings and being performed everywhere.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Holocaust survivor composer Hans Gal was the Haydn of the 20th century. Part 1 of 2.

November 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Sunday marked the start of Kenneth Woods Week – which will have a couple of interruptions or different posts for variety — on The Ear.

Woods is a man of many talents, interests and projects.

He is also a good friend of this blog.

But more importantly, he is a distinguished graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Music who is becoming a major player on the world music scene (see Sunday’s post for details) and he is engaged in a major multi-year project: the rediscovery and revival of the Viennese composer Hans Gal.

As an introduction, here is a link to a biographical sketch of Gal, whom I expect we will hear performed more and more in the coming years, thanks in no small part to Woods — a native son whom I hope will be booked for a guest stint by the Madison Symphony Orchestra — and AVIE Records:

Woods (below) gave The Ear an extended interview about Gal that will run in two parts, today and tomorrow.

How did you discover the music of Hans Gal?

I became aware of Gál (18990-1987) through my involvement in the music written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp (below) during World War II. There were several truly great Jewish composers who were held there before being murdered in Auschwitz – Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann.

This music only started to become known in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and around that time, Henry Meyer, the legendary 2nd violinist of the La Salle String quartet asked me if my student quartet would like to learn the Third String Quartet by Viktor Ullmann with him.

Henry should have been the one to premiere and record this piece with the La Salles – it was their kind of music (they’re probably most famous for their Deutsche Grammophon recording of all the Schoenberg, Berg and Webern quartets), but this music was completely lost during his long playing career.

Even more poignantly, Henry himself had survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where Ullmann was murdered a few weeks after finishing the quartet. He was the perfect musical and spiritual guide to this repertoire. Learning this amazing piece with Henry was a truly life-changing experience, and we gave the Ohio premiere of the work in 1993 (we think we were the second US quartet to play it).

Through working on the Ullmann, I became fascinated with this entire lost generation of Jewish composers. Gál  (below) was a name I knew from his work as a musicologist – he edited the standard complete edition of Brahms’ orchestral music, which we all use. I was a bit surprised to find my colleague on this disc, Annette-Barbara Vogel describe him as a major composer. At her suggestion, I started tracking down some scores of his.

Gál was lucky — he escaped to Britain before the Nazi’s could capture him, but although he was one of the most important composers in the German-speaking world before the war, once displaced, he never again found quite the platform for his music he had once had.

How would you place Gal’s work in the history of Western music?

Gradually, I got to know a few pieces and was fascinated by them, but even eight years ago when we first discussed recording this recording of his Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino and Triptych with the Northern Sinfonia, there was almost nothing available to listen to. I had to get to know the music first through the scores, and later through a few old radio recordings.

Although my first response was that it was lovely writing, Gál’s music isn’t intense in the way Krasa and Ullmann are — his response to his time was more introspective, about healing rather than anguish. It doesn’t grab you by the throat at all.

Gradually, I became convinced that he was a major, major composer. Like Haydn (below), his greatness is somewhat obscured by his love of humor and understatement, but he’s a great composer, no doubt.

How would you describe the music of Gal and what makes it original and appealing or noteworthy?

There are certain qualities that immediately stand out to anyone who hears a Gál work played well: he is a great melodist, a consummate and imaginative orchestrator and his music is always lyrical and attractive. (Editor’s note: Just listen to the excerpt at the end of this post.) The language feels familiar, and everything works. In that sense, his music is immediately accessible and rewarding.

However, Gál’s music really shows its depth and richness over repeated encounters. Its surface simplicity belies incredible craftsmanship and sophistication. Its genial tone hides really profound emotional content. It is music that tantalizes and draws you back, and where there is always something new to discover — things that seem straightforward, like return statements of a melody, have layers of detail that are always shifting.

How did Gal get overlooked or neglected?

Gál  was 42 when he wrote the earliest work on this disc, the Violin Concerto (below). When that piece was premiered, just weeks before Hitler came to power, Gál was a major figure — director of the conservatory in Mainz, then the top school in the German-speaking world (a job he got on the recommendation of Richard Strauss). He’d already had four operas produced!

Then, at the peak of his career, he was completely silenced — for a number of years before he made it to Britain, nothing of his was played anywhere. Once in Britain, he had a number of things working against him — his music had been, and remained, very much part of the Viennese musical tradition.

He’s an heir to the line of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. He was probably the last great composer in that line. I recently conducted Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, written in 1946, and was more than ever struck by how the piece is a memorial to the German musical tradition. New German-sounding music was not likely to be especially popular after the war in Britain.

After the war, the only part of that line that was considered acceptable was its continuation in the New Vienna School or Second Viennese School — Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and the serial composers that followed them. It’s hard to overstate how powerful the serial worldview was after the war (although Gál and Berg had been close friends and colleagues). Any Germanic composer who didn’t follow that path was considered reactionary and out of step.

Gál not only didn’t follow that path, his music becomes more lyrical, more tonal and more focused on traditional forms after the war. In Britain, this meant his music was treated like a quaint anachronism.

It’s a pity. The music lost in Theresienstadt, which we’ve now re-discovered, has shown us that there was this whole other line after Schoenberg of musicians who understood his innovations but were focused on maintaining connections to tonality, folk music and traditional forms. Berg and Webern weren’t the only possible response to Schoenberg and Mahler. There were other émigré composers to, like Goldschmidt and Krenek.

Looking back, it seems like much of the 20th century discussion about music was more focused on style than on quality. Gál may have been too old school for the music fashionistas of his time, but we can see he was always retro-hip today.

Tuesday: Gal’s range of work and critical reactions to it.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: It’s Kenneth Woods Week on The Ear as we visit with an important UW alumnus and lost composer Hans Gal

November 21, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today marks the start of Thanksgiving week, typically a slow time – though hardly a dead quiet time — for live classical music before the accelerating rush toward the winter intermission over the holiday season. It’s the time when classical music gradually gives way, appropriately, to holiday music, both secular and sacred, classical and popular.

Several factors make this a good time, then, to celebrate a special man and musician who is also a good friend of the blog. So The Well-Tempered Ear is devoting this week – with the exception of a Wednesday break for the usual Best Bets and special Thanksgiving piece on Thursday — to Kenneth Woods (below) and calling it “Kenneth Woods Week.”

Specifically, we will be looking Woods’ career and at how Woods is working with AVIE Records on the rediscovery and revival  of the Viennese composer Hans Gal (1890-1987, below) — with great enough success that even more Gal recordings are in store.

Woods – who will be hosting Thanksgiving for American ex-patriots at his home in Cardiff, Wales — is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Music with a master’s degree in cello performance in 1993. (As an undergraduate, he attended Indiana University 1986-1990.)

He is now the conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan (see the link below) and is based in Cardiff, Wales.

He has returned to guest conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra.

He has made recordings of previously unknown repertoire.

He travels around the United Kingdom and the world doing guests appearances and he recently made headlines in a charity concert rededicating a renovated concert hall with the patron Her Royal Highness Camilla Parker-Bowles in attendance. Here is a link to a detailed review:

Amid all his activities, however, Woods does not forget his alma mater.

He has returned to teach at the annual summer clinics for middle school and high schools students, and he has worked with UW students.

Woods, himself a cellist before he turned to conducting, has also booked UW professor and cellist Parry Karp to give his first public performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concert this past week.

(Woods is an avid fan of and specialist in Elgar and last year conducted the UW Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 – a work far less well-known than it should be, given that it is done the composer of the famous Cello Concerto and the “Enigma” Variations.

Here is a link to his impressive website, which includes his impressive bio, his enormous repertoire list as well as his debut recording and its great reviews and a list of his honors and awards:

Here is a link to his informative blog, “A View From the Podium”:

Here is a summary of Woods’ career highlights from Wikipedia:

This is not the first time this blog has focused on Wood:’s-kenneth-woods-conducts-free-uw-symphony-orchestra-concert-sunday-night/

If all this seems excessive, wait until you see what we will be dealing with.

And take a look at his long list of guest conducting stints. Woods is clearly a young musician on the move. We will hearing more from him and more about him on both sides of The Pond.

There are quite a few  YouTube videos of Woods to enjoy.

Here he is conducting the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra in the first song from Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder”:

And here is conducting the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

Tomorrow: Reviving and recording the music of Hans Gal, Part 1

Posted in Classical music
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