The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music new clips for Nov. 20: Yo-Yo Ma to get Medal of Freedom from President Obama. James Levine withdraws but James Conlon stays on. Will populism and politics help or hurt classical music?

November 20, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Saturday – so here is my weekly news update with some clips that I hope you find as enjoyable and informative as I did.

Some patterns are beginning to emerge as the first half of the season closes out:

One is that some major organizations, symphonic and operatic, are in trouble. It all makes the Madison scene look healthy.

Another is that all the talk about mixing pop music and classical music to attract younger viewers may be misguided. But people want to know more.

Read on and see what you think:


Does the classical aspect help or hurt songwriter Rufus Wainwright (below)?


The health of conductor James Levine (below) is still in question, especially after he withdrew from a live performance:


Music director James Conlon (below) extends his time with LA Opera:


Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below), champion of classical and ethnic world music (The Silk Road Ensemble) is to be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, for whose inauguration he played:


New recordings suggest the future of Minimalism as practiced by Steve Reich (below top) and Arvo Part (below bottom) is assured:


Politics is hurting the chances of China’s possible dominance in classical music:


Will taking classical music to the streets — as superstar violinist Joshua Bell (below) did in a subway — benefit its future?


Now 42 years later, the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Simon Rattle (below) returns to the Arab world – with Brahms:


Will Opera Cleveland (below) fall silent?


Things remain bleak at the Detroit Symphony (below):

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Let us now praise Madison Opera’s Allan Naplan

November 19, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As the wise humorist Garrison Keillor likes to say every week about the fictional village of Lake Wobegon: “It’s been a busy week in my hometown.”

Certainly we in Madison have learned some interesting things about the classical music scene here in the past several days.

But the biggest thing we learned is that:


Starting March 1, the Madison Opera’s general director Allan Naplan (below) will be moving on to head the Minnesota Opera as President and General Director.

That means going from a budget of $2 million to $9 million, and going from a city of 250,000 to a city/metropolitan area of almost 3 million, making it the 16th largest such region in the U.S. This is not just a promotion or an advancement. This is a Great Leap Forward.

The Minnesota Opera is the 15th largest opera company in the U.S.

Take a look at its impressive home website:

And then look at its announcement of Naplan’s equally impressive biography and appointment:

Allow me, if I may, to interpret: This move amounts to another step up in a career path that The Ear thinks is likely to take Naplan (below) – who previously worked with the Houston Grand Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera — within the next decade or so to an even bigger major opera company in an even bigger market or major city like Chicago or New York, Boston or Washington, Los Angeles or San Francisco. One day, we’ll say we knew him when.

Look at his achievements. Big or small, they are striking and impressive – and allow you to understand why Minnesota Opera came calling on him, not him on them.

Naplan has had a steady stream of sell-outs and near sell-outs since he first came to Madison nearly six years ago. That speaks well of his ability to choose repertoire, but also to orchestrate marketing campaigns and to surround himself with a staff that provides both artistic excellence and business acumen.

Not for nothing has the Madison Opera just closed the books on its fifth straight year of surpluses. That in itself is a cause for celebration in the opera world, where even Opera Cleveland is facing a possible final curtain, as are many other major symphony orchestras and opera companies.

What else has Naplan done in his tenure?

He instituted a third, mid-winter opera in smaller Overture Center venues, and each has been successful, from Copland’s “The Tender Land” and Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” (below) to this season’s “Three-Penny Opera.”

He has used new media and social networking to reach new audiences and educate the public, and launched the first Blogger’s Night. It was successful. I know because I was there and participated. It continued this fall and plans are for it to continue every season with new voices blogging.

He also inaugurated the Opera Up Close previews that helped build an audience that would feel comfortable with opera, and the level-headed Naplan did not feel threatened by the Met’s hi-def live broadcasts but instead used them to his advantage.

Last summer, he helped set the record attendance (14,000) for Opera in the Park (below), which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next July without him.

He has consistently chosen great young singers, great sets and great costumes to import for productions, including the Madison Opera’s first Wagner opera (“The Flying Dutchman,” below).

He has negotiated wisely and well with some big egos and big talents in the opera world, at least judging from appearances, and works well with music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

Naplan also works well with the media. I have always found him accessible, pleasant and informative to deal with. With me he has always been a straight-shooter. He is no prima donna, no Rudolf Bing (go ahead Goggle the Met legend).

A former professional touring baritone who composes and arranges music, Naplan made a recording that went up on a Space Shuttle. With mastery, he uses his resonant and mellifluous voice to get points across. He sounds great on radio or in person. In short, he has presence and can talk as well as sing.

I think we will miss him and what he has accomplished. A lot.

Will he be replaceable? I am sure the same process that found him a can find another talented person like him. There are many out there, especially during these hard economic times.

But will the new person measure up to him? We can hope only we are so lucky.

Naplan took the solid foundation he inherited from Madison Opera founders Ann Stanke, and Roland and Arline Johnson, and built on it. Naplan, who has two young sons with his wife Christina, leaves a very big record built up in a very short time, one that won’t be easy to match. He leaves the Madison Opera just as it celebrates its Gold Anniversary  — middle in age but strong in body and young at heart.

In the meantime, we music-lovers can all say: “Thank you, Allan, for your service and for bringing so many of us many hours of pleasure. We will miss you, and we wish you success and good luck. We will remember you fondly and hope that you will remember us.”

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Violinist Frank Almond puts Samuel Barber with Copland and Bernstein as America’s modern Big Three composers. Hear him in Barber’s gorgeous Violin Concerto Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 18, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Milwaukee-based Frank Almond (below) is one of The Ear’s favorite violinists.

The concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra returns to Madison (where he also performs with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society)  this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater with the MSO and its new music director Edo de Waart. (The world-renowned De Waart, below, lives in nearby Middleton, Wis., but is also the director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has conducted numerous times at the Met in New York City.)

The program includes Almond in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Also featured are Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. A free pre-concert lecture by Perry Allaire is at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are general admission is $20, $42 and $46, $10 for UW students. Youth tickets are only $14 with purchase of adult ticket – limit 2 youth tickets per adult ticket. Youth tickets must be purchased at the same time as the adult tickets and are valid for youths 6-18 years old. Age is verified at the door. Call 608 262-2201 or visit:

Almond – see the YouTube interview below — who has won the prestigious Paganini Competition, recently gave an e-mail Q&A to The Ear in advance of his performance:

How would you place or rank the Barber Violin Concerto among other major violin concertos for musicality, difficulty and effectiveness? What is its place in your repertoire?

In comparison to most of the 19th century standard repertory like Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky or Brahms, it’s entirely different. Barber’s concerto — he originally called it a Concertino — isn’t a large-scale vehicle for virtuosity or some grand statement.

That’s not to suggest those elements are absent, but I don’t believe they were the primary focus. This piece is a snapshot of Barber at the age of 29, with many of his compositional hallmarks evident already. The perpetual motion third movement is certainly challenging, and really unlike anything else he ever wrote.

I think the Concerto is in a class by itself, kind of like Bernstein’s “Serenade.” It has a highly individual and accessible musical language and seems to have finally found broad audience appeal.

What do you think of it and what are your thoughts about interpreting it?

I love this piece, and it’s always a pleasure to perform it with a great orchestra. Barber’s sense of melody and lyricism really dominate the concerto — with the exception of the last movement — and that’s always been an appealing factor to me, along with his gifts at orchestration. And it’s a powerful piece of music, after all.

It was clearly underrated for decades, pretty much since its composition in 1939. So it’s nice to have it firmly in the soloist repertory these days.

What explains Barber’s popularity with the general public and the growing popularity of this concerto?

I’m not exactly sure how popular Barber (below) is, relative to his importance in the pantheon of great American composers. His reputation has certainly blossomed over the decades since his death, and of course there’s a great deal of attention during this centenary anniversary.

But it’s important to remember that during his lifetime Barber was often dismissed as a lightweight by most of the “establishment,” for many reasons – mostly, I believe, because his work and musical language were not easily classifiable or stereotyped.

He lived in a period in which labels like “neo-Romantic” or “serialist” were of great importance to others, but didn’t seem to appeal to him much. His very personal sense of lyricism, harmony (or dissonance), unique orchestrations and instrumentation all became dominant characteristics of his music, but for many people it was hard to define him artistically. In a sense, it still is.

This concerto was widely dismissed as second-rate, or at best trivial, until probably just after his death. Part of this was due to the complex genesis of the piece (see below), but also because of the general attitude towards Barber (1910-1981) as a composer in the later part of his life.

Posterity has shown how truly remarkable an artist he was — in my opinion probably one of the three great American composers of the 20th century, along with Copland and Bernstein.

There has been some new research into Barber and especially his violin works that you have been involved in. Can you elaborate on what we now know and what you have found out?

I recently completed a project with the Hal Leonard Corporation that is a new publication and CD of Barber’s works for violin and piano.

One of the major revelations was the discovery of a previously “lost” sonata movement for violin and piano, composed when Barber was 18 years old. It’s not a student work at all, and is really quite substantial with a bold, almost Brahmsian feel to it. A holograph of it was discovered in 2006, and this is the first edition and recording.

There are also some arrangements of various art songs, and other works we thought would be convincing with violin and piano. The songs really blew me away; they are absolute masterpieces. There are also some curiosities like a couple of very early works from when he was about 11.

Regarding the concerto, there has been a lot of new research pertaining to the original commission and subsequent drama that followed.

For decades, the party line has been propagated, namely that the piece was dismissed as insufficient in some form by the original dedicatee, a young violinist named Iso Briselli. Given Briselli’s substantial abilities, this tale always seemed unusual to me, and finally the evidence seems to rebut the story entirely.

Anyone interested can go to; it’s a significant and very detailed read, but very interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

Although you won’t be playing them in Madison, as the MSO concertmaster can you say anything about the Grieg “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra? What should the public pay attention to or know about them?

Most people will recognize the Grieg (below) from various cartoons they may have seen, so it may be surprising to discover that this music was what made Grieg really famous during his lifetime. The success of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” was in large measure due to Grieg’s incidental music, and the suites have become standard orchestral repertory.

The piece by Bartok (below) title speaks for itself. It’s a showcase for the orchestra, and one of Bartok’s absolute masterpieces.

I think the Milwaukee Symphony is at its apex artistically under Edo de Waart (both below), and the Bartok is a great opportunity for the Madison audience to experience what’s been regularly happening for a couple of years now.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: This very busy week features Bach cantatas and a Handel oratorio; the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Community Orchestra; and the acclaimed Gramercy Trio

November 17, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As we wind down towards Thanksgiving Break next week and eventually Winter Break starting next month, the concert schedule is picking up to a frenetic pace to conclude the Fall Semester.

Consider some of the train-wreck evenings this week: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when even the fiercest fan can be easily overwhelmed with choices.

But one thing is sure: It will be great week for Barqoue vocal music as well as chamber music and orchestral music.

Just take a look at these lengthy Best Bets.


UW choral conductor Beverly Taylor will be a (pre-recorded) guest on Ena Foshay’s WORT 89.9 FM radio show this morning between 7:30–8 a.m. They will be discussing the UW Choral Union’s performances this weekend (see Monday’s blog post for details) of Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” Visit:

At 7:30 p.m. tonight in Mills Hall, the Gramercy Trio (below) will perform on the UW’s Guest Artist Series. The Gramercy Trio is composed of violinist Sharan Leventhal, cellist Jonathan Miller and pianist Randall Hodgkinson.

The program includes “Trio for violin, cello and piano” (1914) by Maurice Ravel; “Buenos Aires Suite” (2006) by Sonia Possetti and “Trio in E-flat major,” Op. 100 (1827) by Franz Schubert.

Admission is free and open to the public.


From 1-3 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Gramercy Trio violinist Sharan Leventhal will give a free public violin master class. Leventhal teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and Brandeis University and has served on the faculties of Michigan State University and the Berklee College of Music. She has premiered more than 100 works by Gunther Schuller, Virgil Thomson, William Kraft and Scott Wheeler, among others.

At 4 p.m. in Room 1321 of the Mosse Humanities Building, the Gramercy Trio will do Composer Readings of compositions by UW School of Music students. Admission is free and open to the public.

At 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, UW professor Javier Calderon leads the Guitar Ensemble. Admission is free.


The First Unitarian Society’s weekly free Noon Musicale, 12:30 to 1 p.m., will feature the Monroe Chamber Trio – Beth Wilson, piano; Laurie Riss, cello; and Mary Wilkosz, flute — in music of Bach, Bolling, LeClair and Martinu.

Free admission and coffee at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. For information, call (608) 233.9774.

At 7:30 p.m. in the Mitby Theater of Madison Area Technical College’s Truax campus, near the airport, the Madison Community Orchestra (below) will give its first concert of the year under conductor Blake Walter.

The program includes Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

Admission is free and open to the public.

Also at 7:30 p.m., at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St. in Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will present “O Voluptuous Earth.”

The program, features music by Romantic composers and their latter-day admirers. “Voluptuous” part-songs by Brahms, Stenhammar, & Parry  rub shoulders with recent American   and Canadian works, including the world premiere of “Nature’s Cry” by Stephen Chatman; Jean Belmont Ford’s “Sand County” —a moving tribute to Wisconsin ecologist Aldo Leopold; Kirke Mechem’s passionate setting of “The World Is Too Much with Us” and “Smile, O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth” by British Columbian composer, Imant Raminsh.

For more information, visit http:///

Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets. Advance tickets are available at Orange Tree Imports (1721 Monroe St. Madison) and from choir members.

Advance tickets are $12, $10 for students; at the door: $15 and $12.

In Morphy Hall from noon to 2 p.,m. Randall Hodgkinson of the Gramercy Trio will lead a free public master class for UW School of Music pianists. Hodgkinson has performed with orchestras in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland and abroad in Italy and Iceland. He is an artist member of the Boston Chamber Music Society and a member of the faculties of the New England Conservatory of Music, the Longy School and Wellesley College.

At 4 p.m. in Room 1641 of the Mosse Humanities Building, the UW School of Music Colloquium Series presents a public talk: “The Mise-en-scene of Mediation: Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’” by David Levin of Germanic Studies.

This talk examines the stakes of theatricality in Peter Konwitschny’s strikingly unconventional production of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” which concluded the Stuttgart Opera’s strikingly unconventional centennial production of the Ring cycle.

Admission is free.

At 8 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the UW Guest Artist Series presents cellist Ronald Leonard (below) with UW pianist Christopher Taylor, piano.

Leonard (below) and Taylor will perform “Prelude,” by Emanuel Moor; “Sonate in E major,” by Françoix Francoeur; “Fantasy Pieces,” Op. 73 by Robert Schumann; “Suite for Solo Cello,” Op. 131c, No. 1 by Max Reger; “Sonata in A minor,” Op. 36 by Edvard Grieg; and “Introduction, Theme and Variations,” Op. 82, No. 2 by Franz Schubert, transcribed by Gregor Piatagorsky.

Admission is free and open to the public.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall., the University Chorus and Women’s Chorus perform under conductors Michael Pfizter, Sarah Riskind and Brian Gurley. Admission is free.


From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Morphy Hall, cellist Ronald Leonard will give a free public master class. Leonard joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as principal cellist in 1975 and remained in that post until retiring in 2000. During his tenure, he performed as a soloist with the orchestra many times, under conductors Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen.  He was formerly the Piatagorsky Professor of Cello at the University of Southern California and currently teaches cello and chamber music at the Colburn School.

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall – and then again on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall — the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra (below), under conductor Beverly Taylor, performs Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” by Handel.

Soloists include sopranos Emily Birsan and Karen Bishop, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams, tenor James Doing, baritone Paul Rowe and bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz. The Choral Union has about 160 members, from both campus and community. See UW Professor Jeanne Swack’s program notes at (Click “Israel in Egypt” on calendar for page where notes are posted.)

Admission is $15, $8 for seniors and students. Call 608 262-2201 or visit:

For more information, visit:

On Saturday and Sunday, at 8 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. respectively (with accompanying pre-concert lectures at 7:15 and 2:45), the early music group the Madison Bach Musicians (below) will perform three cantatas by J.S. Bach in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square downtown.

The cantatas are: BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds”; 
BWV 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (God’s Time Is the Best Time);
and BWV 196, “Der Herr denket an uns” (The Lord Thinks of Us).

Tickets can be 
purchased in advance or at the door. Advance ticket prices: $20 General, $15 Students/Seniors (over 65)
Tickets at the door: $25 General, $20 Students/Seniors. Cash or checks only:  Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians.

Advance ticket purchase locations in Madison include:
Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street,
 608 255-8211; Farley’s House of Pianos,
6522 Seybold Road,
 608 271-2626; A Room of One’s Own,
 307 W. Johnson St.
608 257-7888; Ward Brodt Music Mall,
 2200 West Beltline Highway (Exit Todd Drive);
 608 661-8600; and Willy Street Co-op,
1221 Williamson St., 608 251-6776.


“Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” presents violinist Wen-Lei Gu and pianist Anthony Padilla from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art.

The performance will feature music from Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in A minor for Piano and Violin, Op. 105 and Grand Sonata No. 2 in D minor for Violin and Piano, op. 121; Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in D minor for Violin Solo, BWV 1004; and Brahms’ Scherzo in C minor for Violin and Piano from the F.A. E. Sonata.

Gu is currently the Assistant Professor of Music at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. Padilla also teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music and serves as a professor of piano and chamber music.

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 3:30 p.m. in Grace Episcopal Church, the Madison Bach Musicians will perform three cantatas by J.S. Bach. See Saturday above.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra, under Beverly Taylor (below)  will give a repeat performance of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” See Saturday’s listing, above.

At 7:30 p.m in the Wisconsin Union theater, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra  (below) returns to Madison to perform under its new music director Edo de Waart. The program includes MSO concertmaster Frank Almond in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Also featured are Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. A free pre-concert lecture by Perry Allaire is at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are general admission is $20, $42 and $46, $10 for UW students. Youth tickets are only $14 with purchase of adult ticket – limit 2 youth tickets per adult ticket. Youth tickets must be purchased at the same time as the adult tickets and are valid for youths 6-18 years old. Age is verified at the door.

Call 608 262-2201 or visit:


At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, an Opera Workshop will be held. It will offer duets and trios from “Der Freischuetz,” “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” “Billy Budd,” “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” “Don Giovanni” and “Arabella.” The performers are Emily Worzalla, K. C. Peck, Lindsay Sessing, Yohan Kim, Michael Roehmer and Chelcie Probst.

Also featured are pianists Susan Goeres, Bill Lutes and Mimmi Fulmer with direction by Mimmi Fulmer, William Farlow and Jamie Van Eyck.

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band under Scott Teeple, conductor (below), and guest conductors Matthew Mireles, Tobin Sucha and Matthew Schlomer, features guest clarinet soloist James Smith.

The program includes “Slava!” by Leonard Bernstein; “Toccata,” by Girolamo Frescobaldi; “Gandalf,” by De Meij; “Concertino for Clarinet,” Op. 26 by Carl Maria von Weber with soloist James Smith; “Lux Aurumque,” by Eric Whitacre and “Carmina Burana,” by Carl Orff.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: 3 famous and related Bach cantatas are on tap this weekend from the superb Madison Bach Musicians

November 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As I wrote in yesterday’s post — about the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra doing two performances of Handel‘s great oratorio “Israel in Egypt” — this coming weekend will see an 18th-century Battle of the Bands when it comes to Baroque choral music.

Also on Saturday and Sunday, at 8 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. respectively (with accompanying pre-concert lectures at 7:15 and 2:45), the outstanding early music group the Madison Bach Musicians will perform three cantatas by J.S. Bach in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square downtown. (The exterior and interior of this old church, an ideal acoustical and atmospheric setting for the cantatas, are shown below.)

The cantatas are: BWV 4, “Christ lag in Todes Banden” (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds); 
BWV 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (God’s Time Is the Very Best Time);
 and BWV 196, “Der Herr denket an uns” (The Lord Thinks of Us).

Tickets are may be 
purchased in advance or at the door.

Advance ticket prices: $20 general admission, $15 students and seniors (over 65)
; tickets at the door are $25 general admission, and $20 for students and seniors.

Cash or checks only are accepted, no credit cards: Make checks payable to Madison Bach Musicians (below).

Advance ticket purchase locations in Madison include:
 Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe Street,
 608 255-8211; Farley’s House of Pianos,
6522 Seybold Road,
 608 271-2626; A Room of One’s Own,
 307 W. Johnson St.
 608 257-7888; Ward Brodt Music Mall,
2200 West Beltline Highway (Exit Todd Drive);
 608 661-8600; and Willy Street Co-op, 
1221 Williamson St., 608 251-6776.

MBM director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), one of the most articulate spokesperson around for early music and classical music in general, recently spoke to The Ear about the upcoming concert:

Briefly, what is the place or role of the cantatas compared to Bach’s other works and other baroque vocal music by, say, Handel or Vivaldi or Telemann? What was the original purpose and context of the cantatas?

They were an integral part of the Lutheran church service. The Cantata was usually performed right before the sermon, and the Cantata text was often related to the scriptural readings for the particular Sunday in the church calendar.

The Cantata was designed to get the congregation into the spirit of the message for that week. Imagine, what an introduction a Bach Cantata would be for a sermon! These historical Lutheran services, which were three to four hours long, have been recreated from time to time, particularly in Europe, but some in the US as well.

Why did you choose these three particular cantatas out of the 200 –plus that have survived?

The three Cantatas we will perform on this concert all date from early in Bach’s career, around 1707-08, when he was in his early 20s. All three reflect 17th-century practices much more than 18th-century.

In particular there are no recitatives, no free poetry, and there is no Vivaldian ritornello structure (which is everywhere in Bach’s Cantatas written after 1713). The text for Cantata 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” comes from Martin Luther’s hymn meditation on the Easter message. Cantata 196, “Der Herr denket an uns” –probably a wedding Cantata — is based upon four Psalm verses. And Cantata 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” is most likely a funeral Cantata, and draws from a variety of Bible verses and chorale strophes. (A photo of the manuscript for BWV 9 is below.)

I think these three works form a nice set in that they are stylistically unified and yet deal with such different subjects. Christ lag always seems to me chiseled out of marble. Its austere treatment of the subject of Jesus’ self sacrifice for love of humanity is masterful.

I always think that Stravinsky was trying to emulate this approach (though perhaps failing) in his “Oedipus Rex”; in Cantata 4, the marble-like feeling makes you feel even more Jesus’ unswerving devotion to us. Cantata 196 is full of love and warmth and has an out-doorsy feel to it. 106 is a window onto eternity.

What special moments or effects should the public listen for in each one?

The unearthly beautiful dialogue between the viola da gambas and the recorders at the beginning of Cantata 106, “God’s time is the very best time,” is without equal in Western music—I know that’s a big claim, but I’m sticking with it. Also the tenor/bass duet in Cantata 196, “Der Herr segne euch je mehr und mehr, euch und eure Kinder” (May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children) is written very much in the 17th-century idiom, and is so graceful and tender.

And if I had to pick a desert island piece (if you can only take one piece with you to the desert island, what would it be) it might very well be the soprano/alto duet from Cantata 4, “Den Tod, niemand zwingen kunnt” (Death, which no one could overcome). The way the two lines at times float about one another and then inevitably converge in excruciatingly beautiful dissonances, forging the soul–it is haunting, mesmerizing, and enlightening all at one. As Martin Luther wrote at the end of each dark verse: Hallelujah!

Also, watch how Bach’s music has an infinite ability to morph without ever losing the thread of its story. Pattern and variation, wood grain in sound. Debussy said of Bach—the subject is never lost.

Why do you think are the cantatas of Bach (below) not performed more often?

Probably because they fall in the cracks between weekly church music and concert music. First of all, most of them are challenging to perform for modern church choirs. Bach hardly ever makes things easy. At the same time, the serious spiritual message of the music’s text makes the Cantatas somewhat out-of-place in the concert hall.

I think this gap has been closing in recent years, more choirs are taking on–or are at least are considering taking on—Bach’s Cantatas, and we are seeing more performances by early music groups as concerts in churches, which is what MBM is doing for these concerts.

How have performance style or practices of them changed over the years?

Starting from the beginning, what wouldn’t we give for just a five- minute recording of Bach himself leading his group. And for that matter, how about a clip of Mendelssohn conducting the “St. Matthew Passion” in 1827? What would we think? Have things changed so much since then that we might not even be able to recognize the interpretive advantages that their approaches have.

As an example, even the spoken English language has changed quite a bit in the last 100 years. Listen to recordings of spoken English from 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 and so on—the rhythms, pacing, inflections, cadences, groupings have all changed.

Here is a an appetizer: the final chorus from Cantata 196. Enjoy!

Posted in Classical music

Classical music preview: Handel’s oratorio ‘Israel in Egypt’ at UW exults in sound painting and freedom

November 15, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see a feast of Baroque choral works, including the oratorioIsrael in Egypt” by Georg Frideric Handel.

Handel’s oratorio – famous for its vivid and dramatic sound painting — will be performed in Mills Hall by the UW Choral Union (below top, rehearsing) and the UW Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) this Saturday at 8 p.m. and this Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Soloists include soprano Emily Birsan (below top), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Sams, tenor James Doing (below middle), baritone Paul Rowe (below bottom) and bass-baritone Benjamin Schultz. The Choral Union has about 160 members, from both campus and community.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students. They are available through the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office online, in person, on the phone, by fax or mail. The address is 800 Langdon St., 53706.; call  (608) 262-2201 or fax (608) 265-5084.

Visit this link for program notes by UW early music specialist and Choral Union member Jeanne Swack:

Beverly Taylor directs the Choral Union and will conduct both the singers and the orchestra.

Taylor (below) recently granted The Ear an e-mail interview about the concert and the program:

For you, what makes Handel a great composer and how does he differ from, say, his contemporaries Bach and Vivaldi?

Handel has great variety and pithiness in his choral movements, from the grand to the flowing to the quirky, and often very dramatic.

What I’ve always liked about his choral writing is that he often starts with polyphony–imitation of a theme by the different voices, followed by a burst of homophonic writing, in which all the voices sound together.  You find it in the “Hallelujah “Chorus, and throughout “Israel in Egypt.”  It seems to emphasize a sort of community aspect of Handel–a gathering together of the forces.

Bach is close to my heart. I don’t need to compare the two, as they are both great, but Bach tends to be either all homophonic–as in the chorales — or all polyphonic, in his great fugues. But like Handel, Bach is full of invention in each idea.  Vivaldi to me is less inventive, but has a pulsing raw energy to his work. But I don’t know his writing, really, as well as Handel’s and Bach’s.

What distinguishes “Israel in Egypt” as a work of music and does it have any relevance to today? What do you like about it and why did you choose it?

“Israel in Egypt,” along with Handel’s “Messiah,” has more choral music in it than any other oratorio I know.  Although there are some wonderful solos and duets, they take a back seat in number of minutes of the performance to the great choruses.  Unlike “Messiah,” many of the choral movements are written for double chorus.

The UW Chamber Orchestra (below) has some really skilled violinists as well, and I knew they could show their stuff in the wonderful “flies” movement, which describes one of the plagues visited on Egypt.  It’s simply some glorious writing for chorus.

The Exodus story is one that many people can identify with–the need to escape, the sense of being protected in God’s care, while the danger is removed BUT there perhaps are remains of another cultural view in some of Handel’s writing–his aggressive bass duet of God as a god of war is one, and the fact that Handel borrowed some tunes from himself and others meant that occasionally the music might be cheerier than the text!

What is the historical importance of oratorios as a form and as a genre that Handel worked in?

Handel (below) was a natural dramatist, and during the Lenten season in England, no operas could be performed. But oratorios were sacred and could be performed. Handel’s operatic instincts were given excellent scope in the oratorios.

What should the public listen for in your performance of “Israel in Egypt”?

There’s so much to listen for!  In the first half, there are a large number of pictures drawn by the music–the jerky writing for the plagues of frogs, the whizzing violins for the flies, the pinging of the hail falling, and the low and sparse writing of the thick darkness. (see the manuscript page below.)

There are also some clear dance movements, such as the minuet of No. 16, which closes the first half.  The second half contains some of the loudest and grandest of the movements, and the largest orchestral group, including trumpets and trombones, timpani, oboes and bassoons joining the strings and continuo.

The second half is generally celebratory, while the first half tells the story.  These later choruses feature the writing I described above–grand themes in imitation, interrupted by bursts of homophony.  But there are also some quieter movements that have more formal fugue writing, and all the solos but one are in the second half.

Throughout the piece listen both for the varying articulations of the singers–staccato, legato, slurred, triplets and the vital and active orchestra, which expresses the text without words.

Apart from “Messiah” and maybe “Israel,” (final chorus is below) why is Handel (below) not performed and appreciated more?

I’m not sure I’d agree he’s unappreciated, but many of the wonderful oratorios have a larger number of solos and shorter choral parts, such as in “Jephtha,” one of my personal favorites.  If you are committing a choir to a semester’s work, you’d like the opportunity for them to sing quite a bit.

The oratorios are too long by themselves to combine with other choral works.  If you have the budget for lots of soloists, and not much rehearsal time for the chorus, then the other oratorios make sense.

Of course there are also lots of instrumental pieces, operas and chamber works to choose from too!

Is there something else you would like to say?

Come and hear us on the 20th or 21st!

Posted in Classical music

Will car ads help save classical music?

November 14, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I guess I am as disappointed with a lot or marketing and advertising as much as the next fan of serious culture that goes beyond consumerism.

But ironically it seems that the very commercial culture I often turn away from is helping to preserve and promote the same classical music that I so value and that so many observers say is under siege and in danger of gradually disappearing.

Maybe it should have come as a surprise with a Korean car company using “Sonata” for a model name.

But it did come as a surprise – and a pleasant one.

I of course expect to hear tunes by the Beatles and Rolling Stones used to sell things and services. But Mozart? And Wagner? And Grieg?

As background, try reading this story and listening to the sound clips:

I also recall the gorgeous slow movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major K. 570, for a car ad. (Yes, of course it’s the Hyundai Sonata, in an ad that also mentions Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, but doesn’t play a snippet – could it be on the way?)

And another Mozart piano sonata, namely the famous “Rondo alla Turca” finale from the Sonata in A Major K. 331, is also in an ad for the Hyundai Sonata. Here it is on YouTube:

Hyundai isn’t alone.

Audi uses Ravel’s sparkling “Jeux d’eux” (Fountains):

And other kinds of companies are also using classical music. uses the lovely second movement from Ravel’s String Quartet in this ad:

What is it about the music of Mozart and Ravel that appeals to advertising creators? Perhaps the clarity and precision? Perhaps the lightness? Perhaps the ability to splice it up and edit it?

Anyway, do you know of more ads with classical music? I could swear I hear some Chopin used, but I can find it or remember it. And I would expect some ads or commercials to use Bach, Beethoven and Schubert snippets?

I’d love to hear some more specific examples with links to YouTube performances if you know of them?

The Ear wants to hear – the more, the better.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Famed diva, composer and conductor die. Are music contests ageist? Hi-def broadcasts move beyond the Met. What composers would be great dinner guests?

November 13, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Saturday – so here is my weekly news update with some clips that I hope you find as enjoyable and informative as I did:


Famous and best-selling Polish composer Henryk Gorecki (below) dies at 76:órecki


Musicians are also losing their jobs. So maybe this should come as no surprise. But the famous Young Artists Competition is sued for age discrimination.


Many symphony orchestras and ballet companies are following the Met’s lead with successful big screen hi-def broadcasts:,0,548456.story


Opera diva mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett dies at 79:


Musical America names the winners of its prestigious 2011 awards, who include Anne- Sophie Mutter (below):


Famed Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai (below) dies at 86:


Which composers would you like to have dinner with? National Public Radio’s classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” has some good answers from various musicians. But why doesn’t anyone choose Chopin?

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” at UW proves that Madison has a larger and enthusiastic early music audience

November 12, 2010

Today’s posting is a review by guest critic John W. Barker (below). 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

I have been attending concerts and events at Mills Hall (below) on the UW campus since the auditorium was first opened.

This past Sunday evening I witnessed a capacity-audience ovation that was the longest, most persistent, most fervent I can recall ever hearing there.

What was it for? Why, for a performance of a work now celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication.

That’s right, 400th!  In a word, “early music.”  And a masterpiece thereof.

Claudio Monteverdi‘s liturgical publication, known as the “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” or just the “1610 Vespers,” was a pivotal work, not only in the epoch-making career of Monteverdi (below), but also in the transition in the Western musical language from modal polyphony to tonal homophony.

Beyond that, it is an astounding assemblage of richly varied and profoundly imaginative sacred music by one of the supreme giants of the art. In other words, awfully good stuff! (See the manuscript to his opera “Poppea,” below.)

This performance was given by the UW-Madison Madrigal Singers, augmented by an array of expert period-instrument players mostly brought in from a range of distances.

The conductor, Bruce Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), wisely made his choices among many performing options, and steered his group through a powerful, inspiring, and truly beautiful rendition, given without intermission.

Though performed on the campus by a UW group, this was not just another of those seemingly innumerable musical events the UW School of Music runs each season. The performance was sponsored and largely funded by the Madison Early Music Festival (below, its logo), drawing, too, upon a very generous bequest to the organization made by the recently deceased former faculty member, Jane Graff.

This was, in sum, an important Madison music event.

The Madison Early Music Festival (a concert snapshot is below) originated in 2000. As a part of its debut season that July, it gave the last public performance of the Monteverdi Vespers heard in Madison. MEMF since then has become the galvanizing force behind mounting attention, by musicians and audiences alike, to “early” music here.

That means music dating from before the eras that produced the “standard” repertoire on which mainstream music-making conventionally concentrates: in other words, music from the beginnings of Western Civilization through, say, the 18th century.

That is a literature that still can be dismissed by our media as just a marginal blip in all that “elitist” classical stuff. Well, a large and still-growing portion of Madison’s serious musical public knows better. It comes regularly to the wonderful MEMF concerts each July. And, above all, it can fill Mills Hall and respond to top-quality early music making with a prolonged and highly enthusiastic standing ovation.

I am not sure which delighted and excited me more about that concert: the superb performance, or the knowing, caring, wanting public we can recognize in Madison for this great body of music.

Were you there to hear the Monteverdi “Vespers” (the title page from the 1610 edition is below)?

What do you think of the performance and of the early music scene in Madison?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music breaking news: Madison Opera’s Allan Naplan to head the Minnesota Opera starting March 1.

November 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It comes as no surprise to The Ear that Allan Naplan (below), the general director of the Madison Opera, has been recruited and named to head the Minnesota Opera, beginning this winter. After all, I named him a Musician of the Year in 2007, when I was still working at The Capital Times and he has since proven to be very successful  here. Little wonder, then, that he will go from directing a budget of $2 million to $9 million.

Here is the press release, just minutes after it was released:

Madison, Wis. – Madison Opera’s Board President announced today that current General Director Allan Naplan has been tapped to be the new President and General Director of Minnesota Opera, the 15th largest opera company in the US. Naplan will continue his duties with Madison Opera through performances of The Threepenny Opera in Feb. 2011, and the company is beginning a nationwide search to fill his position.

“We are thrilled for Allan, as this is an amazing opportunity for one of the youngest leaders of an opera company in this country,” said Fran Klos, Board President. Klos continued, “Allan has provided wonderful creativity and energy to our company, and he has helped us reach the highest levels of artistic excellence. It is an honor to Madison Opera that Allan has been offered this prestigious position. Meanwhile, with a strong board of trustees and a multi-year artistic and financial plan, the company’s continued success in ensured. Because of Allan’s leadership, our wonderful audiences, and our generous donors, Madison Opera has finished in the black for each of the last five seasons.”

In reflecting on his five years with Madison Opera, Naplan commented, “Madison has been a wonderful city for my family and me, and we leave it with regret. I truly appreciate the opportunities that Madison Opera has given me and the support we have received from the entire community. I have full confidence in the company and am convinced that Madison Opera has a bright future.”

Naplan will assume duties in the Twin Cities on Mar. 1, 2011. Madison Opera has organized search committee and is beginning a nationwide search for a new general director. Klos stated, “We are already interviewing national search firms and we have put a transition team into place to assure the continuation of our business of producing outstanding opera for our Madison and regional audiences.” Continuing, she stated, “Allan will be deeply missed, but we are confident that with our organizational strength, our talented staff, artistic guidance from Maestro John DeMain, and a wide base of support, we will continue to grow and be a significant force in the Madison community for years to come.”

In September 2010, Madison Opera announced a budget surplus for the closing of the 2009-2010 season and increased subscription sales for the 2010-2011 season. The company opened its 50th anniversary season on Nov. 5 with a sold-out and critically acclaimed production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and will continue its year-long celebration with performances of “The Threepenny Opera,” “La Traviata” and the Madison summer tradition, Opera in the Park (below), which most last summer drew a record audience of over 14,000 people to Garner Park.

For more information on Madison Opera, visit

Do you have any words to leave for Naplan, who he has been good for Madison and Madion’s music scene?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Uncategorized
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