The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW and WYSO conductor James Smith is “Musician of the Year” for 2010

December 31, 2010

A reminder: Tonight at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television, PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” will feature a special live broadcast of the New Year’s Eve  all-Tchaikovsky program by the New York Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert with piano superstar Lang Lang in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor. The concert itself is sold-out, so TV is the best seat, the only seat, in the house at Avery Fisher Hall.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s choice for 2010’s Musician of the Year is James Smith (below).

Smith is a man of many talents and a very busy but reportedly amiable man. He also seems to have universal tastes and talents, programming and performing repertoire form the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, modern and contemporary periods.

Chances are that if you know him at all, you know him from several of his many positions or duties.

He teaches conducting at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he is the Director of Orchestras. So you might have heard him with the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Chamber Orchestra – both of which perform so well, their concerts would get the audiences they deserve if more of them were scheduled on Friday or Saturday nights. (Below is the UW Chamber Orchestra under Smith performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth this past fall.)

He also does the University Opera working with the student instrumentalists and singers.

Finally, he is the Music Director of WYSO, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and conducts their top group, the Youth Orchestra.

I have heard him conduct WYSO in works you might have thought beyond the middle and high school students (below). The results are terrific and the students, middle and high school students, clearly love him as much as the UW undergraduate and graduate students, major and non-majors, love him.

And he is a sport for all kinds of musical events. This fall he also soloed as clarinetist with the UW Concert Band.

Here is his impressive official resume from the UW Faculty/Staff guide:

James Smith conducts the University Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra while continuing in his position as Music Director of the University Opera.

Smith began his career as a clarinetist. After graduation from Southern Methodist University, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study clarinet in London, England, and subsequently received a graduate degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He has performed with the Empire Sinfonietta in New York City, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Miami Philharmonic. While in New York, Smith (below, in a photo by Jack Burns) appeared as soloist with the Empire Sinfonietta performing Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with Aaron Copland conducting.

An interest in conducting began while teaching at the State University of New York at Fredonia, where he co-founded a faculty-student chamber orchestra, the Fredonia Chamber Players, and began appearing as a conductor with the university’s bands and orchestra.

From New York, he moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to conduct the Wind Ensemble and the Symphonic Band. Two years later, Smith was invited by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras to become their Music Director, a position he continues to enjoy.

Guest conducting and the rare sighting as a clarinetist compete for Smith’s free time, time which is better spent cooking, reading and biking.

Here is Smith conducting the UW Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Debussy’s “La Mer” last fall in Mills Hall.

I hope you agree that Smith and his work with students deserve a higher profile and deep appreciation. If we ever needed recognition and help in music education, it is right now in a bad economy and with budget cuts in school art programs and less media coverage for all the arts.

Perhaps this small recognition by The Ear will help.

Leave your good wishes, recollections of hearing or working with Smith or other thoughts in the Comment section.

You can also send him an email at

Let me know what you think of the choice.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

At year’s end, let us remember and praise the many anonymous staffers and loyal audiences who make Madison a great town for classical music

December 30, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Many people forget the obvious: It takes a lot more than just the performers to put on a good performance.

The typical thing for music critics to do at the end of the year is to review their notes and reviews and then name the best or the Top 10 concerts of the past year. Just Google “Best of 2010 classical music in XXX ” and you will see and find plenty for your area and for major cities.

I suppose I could do that too – although the list would be very long. I had so many wonderful moments of listening to great music.

I remember the sublime slow movement of Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto, K. 271 with Jonathan Biss and the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below). I remember a poignant Haydn slow movement of a Haydn string quartet played by the Jerusalem String Quartet in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

I remember a glorious Schumann Piano Quintet with Jeffrey Sykes and the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center. I remember the Schubert Symphony No. 9 “The Great” with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell (below). I remember an unforgettable performance of Schubert’s “Winterreise” song cycle by baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer on the Winter Solstice at the First Unitarian Society.

I remember pianist Robert Levin rocking out in a stunning chamber version of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (below). I remember the UW Chamber Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the UW Choral Union doing Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” And I remember the Madison Bach Musicians performing a great reading of a Haydn symphony, and WYSO playing a Dvorak symphony.

I remember the Pro Arte Quartet (below) playing Schuman. I remember the Forgiveness aria from Madison Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” I remember Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino performing the slow movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Iberia String Quartet at Farley’s House of Pianos. I remember the Ancora String Quartet in Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet. I remember the first half of the JACK Quartet’s concert of contemporary string quartets at the UW.

The list could go on and on, if only my memory could.

But art is NOT about winners and losers.

Of course it takes great musicians to make for a great and healthy classical music scene.

But it also takes the behind-the-scenes people to make it all work.

And when I read the headlines about the labor strife at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, about the symphonies in Honolulu and Louisville and Opera Pacific going bankrupt, I am reminded about how hard so many people to make Madison a classical music capital with more offerings and better quality offering than a city this size deserves to have.

I also remember the loyal audiences that make it work.

So as the year winds down, I want to recognize two groups besides the musicians: the presenters and the audiences.

Take some of the former, for example. The local music scene might be quite different without the tireless efforts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s marketing director Ann Miller and education coordinator Michelle Kaebisch, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s public relations director Sue Ellen McGuire, the UW School of Music’s concert manager Rick Mumford, the Madison Opera’s director of communications Brian Hinrichs, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s manager Samantha Crownover and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s director Ralph Russo, to name but a few.

They work hard to book the artists, choose the programs, select the dates, provide programs and notes, book pre-concert lectures, do the promoting and marketing, plan outreach and educational events and turn a musical concert into a commercial, popular and artistic  success.

That kind of hard work — and beauty requires hard work — is what allowed so many major groups in Madison to finish the fiscal year in the black while so many of their counterparts around the country – also besieged by bad economic times and blessed with fine musicians – ended up in the red or going of business.

Of course we’re not out of the woods yet.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra, and some other groups, would like to restore the length of their pre-Great Recession seasons.

And I worry that all the local competition will shut down the Wisconsin Union Theater (below). That would be a shame, for the WUT is the Carnegie Hall of Madison. It was there long before there was the Overture Center or the Civic Center or Mills Hall or the First Unitarian Society. But audiences there have been small enough that you do have to wonder about its jeopardy and precarious classical series.

But overall I remain optimistic. This is a great town for classical music – and I mean a GREAT town.

The variety and the quality are something many larger urban areas would and should envy.

We may have too small a population base to give each event a full house. And I know we can do better.

Still, we have done well, very well. And so I want to thank all the people — the anonymous and unacknowledged staffers who work in the administrative offices and the box offices.

And I want to thank my fellow audience members for their loyalty.

Thank you, all, for a great 2010. And cheers to a great 2011.

With your help, it will be another banner year.

Let’s make it happen again.

What do you think?

Is this kind of recognition as welcome as naming the best concerts of the year?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Sunday starts the end of the Winter Intermission with viola, harpsichord and cello music

December 29, 2010
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A reminder: The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the young and charismatic superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel and with guest tenor soloist Juan Diego Florez, performs tonight on PBS’Great Performances” series at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television. Warm up a cold night!

By Jacob Stockinger

That wasn’t so long or so bad, after all, was it?

I’m talking about the Winter Intermission in live performances of classical music.

Of course, we classical music addicts had a lot of help from Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television to get us through it, of course.

We still have nearly three weeks before the second semester begins, and already live performances are under way.

Both concerts take place on Sunday, barely into the New Year.

But the music to be performed offers some great choices for string and keyboard music.



“Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” resumes its season after the holiday break when it welcomes violist Elias Goldstein (below) from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in Brittingham Gallery III at the Chazen Museum of Art. As usual, it will be broadcast live by Wisconsin Public Radio.

The unusual and noteworthy program will feature Watson Forbe’s Transcriptions, Beethoven’s Nocturne for Viola and Piano, Boccherini’s Sonata Number 6 in A major, and other composers like Arthur Benjamin, Sarasate, Dinicu and Paganini.

Elias Goldstein graduated with a Master’s in Music from DePaul University where he studied with Mark Zinger.  He has appeared as a soloist with the DePaul Symphony Orchestra, and has performed as guest concertmaster with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Goldstein will be accompanied by Matthew Ganong on the piano.  Ganong is currently the principal keyboardist of the Advent Chamber Orchestra.

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.

Parking is available at the City of Madison State Street Campus Ramp (entrances on Frances and Lake streets) and in the University Square parking ramp (entrance on Lake Street). Metered parking is available in the lower level of UW Lot 46 (entrances on Lake and Frances streets). For more information or for information about upcoming concerts, please call 608 263-2246 or visit the Chazen website at


At 3 p.m. is another of the congenial and musically satisfying “house music” concerts will be offered by early music specialist Trevor Stephenson (below).

It take places at the home of Trevor and Rose Stephenson at 5729 Forsythia Place, on Madison’s west side.

The program is all-Handel – a good choice to greet the New Year since music by Handel (bel0w) almost always seems a bit more light and melodic, more Italian, than Bach’s, at least to The Ear’s ears.

The program includes the “Harmonious Blacksmith: Variations; the Suite in D minor (with the beloved/infamous Sarabande); a Gavotte in G major; a Sonatina in B-flat major; “Impertinence” and other favorites.

Stephenson will perform on a harpsichord modeled on a circa 1720 German Double-manual Harpsichord, the same kind that Bach bought and used in his Brandenburg Concertos.

Admission is $35 with the audience limited to around 40. Light refreshments will be served.

Reservations are required: contact or call (608) 238-6092.


The Ear’s friend Samantha Crownover, manager of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, writes us:

Maureen Kelly and three other cellists will perform a concert at the Washington Coffee House — at Lakeside Fibres, 402 W. Lakeside St. in Madison — on Sunday, January 2, 2011, at 4 p.m. Suggested donation is $10.  Food, wine and food available for purchase.

The program features South American style pieces by composers such as Piazzolla, Villa Lobos and Albeniz.  Don’t be surprised if you hear some other treats thrown in.

Maureen Kelly is a recent graduate of UW-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in cello performance, while there, she was a member of the Perlman Piano Trio (below, middle).  She has also been a member of the National Symphony Orchestra in San Jose, Costa Rica, and will be moving to Israel in February to further her studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

About the other cellists: Andrea Kleesattel is currently pursuing her doctorate at UW-Madison and is a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Sebastiaan de Rode is a Dutch cellist who initiated the Cello Quartet in the summer of 2010. Mark Bridges is an accomplished cellist who recently relocated to the Midwest.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Pianist Murray Perahia’s Brahms CD is among the year’s best

December 28, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Got a gift card to use? Today is a good day to start.

One of the new releases that appeared on several Best of 2010 Classical Recordings Lists is the new all-Brahms album by pianist Murray Perahia (Sony Classical).

The CD (below) features the early “Handel” Variations, Op. 24; the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; and the two late sets of Piano Pieces, Opp. 118 (six of them) and 119 (four of them).

Give the recording a listen, and you will understand why. So I am putting it on my list of must-listen albums too.

Perahia is a seasoned veteran of performing and recording, but a veteran who has run into repeated bouts of finger trouble, stemming from not completing a course of antibiotics after a finger infection that then went to the bone. (When the doctor says take the pills for 10 days, the lesson is that you’d better do it for 10 days.)

Each time Perahia has recovered, he has generally turned to J.S. Bach with great success, especially in the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, the English Suites and the keyboard concertos. I hope he also does especially the French Suites (I know of no recording I really like, though Andras Schiff’s comes the l closest) and The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2.

I like that Perahia makes no bones about how little he connects with modern (he has recorded Bartok, I would note) and contemporary music and so instead focuses on the Old Masters. He won a Grammy for his Chopin etudes and he is also editing the Beethoven sonatas for Henle Editions and recorded several discs of the sonatas. And I very much like his Schubert and Schumann recordings.

In all cases, Perahia, a quietly virtuosic player, is straight ahead in his readings, which are not overinterpreted, over-ornamented or overstated.

Perahia’s up-tempo Brahms – years ago he did a previous album (below) with a fine reading of the Sonata No.3 in F Minor, Op. 5 — reminds of Arthur Rubinstein’s. Here and there he could use more feeling, more sense of a singing vocal lines. But it is good not always to be “lullabyed” by Brahms all the time, “Heaven Lengths” may do it for Schubert – whom Brahms championed and edited — but moving right along has its place.

His playing is exacting and precise. His readings are generally straight-forward, not fussy or precious. You get sentiment without sentimentality – as good a formula for successful Brahms as any.

Perahia’s approach works best in the extroverted pieces (the “Handel” Variations, the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, the Ballade in G minor, Op. 118, and the Rhapsody in E-Flat, Op. 119) and least successfully in the well-loved Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, where just a touch more lingering would underscores the poignancy and bittersweet sadness that you find in so many of Brahms’ later piano pieces.

But most of the CD falls in the middle – as Perahia does.

Modesty has its virtues, and Perahia seems a master advocate for modesty, preferring to emphasize the music rather than a personal or quirky vision of the music.

There is nothing avant-garde or showy or astonishing about Perahia, despite his having studied with Horowitz. But here is something appealingly reliable and middle-of-the-road. His interpretations may be where you personally would want to end up if you were performing the music yourself, but he provides a great start.

And this CD is a great reminder of how much wondrously beautiful music for the piano Brahms composed over his lifetime and especially in his last years.

Do you know the Murray Perahia CD of Brahms?

Other Perahia recordings?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Great classical music abounds on PBS this week: Glenn Gould, Gustavo Dudamel, Juan Diego Florez, Lang-Lang and Vienna

December 27, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The live performances are having a well-earned winter intermission for the most part right now. So I offer this post in honor of all my friends who think I watch too much TV.

This week television — PUBLIC television, that is — offers some outstanding viewing for classical music fans.

Four programs in particular jump out (you can check PBS or WPT listing for repeated showings or local times).

1. Tonight, Monday, Dec. 27, at 8 p.m., the documentary film “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” will be broadcast on “American Masters.” (It’s ironic, no, since Gould was Canadian, not American.)

Here are some PBS program notes:

“There have been other documentaries about Glenn Gould(below), a profoundly enigmatic musical poet, but they were typically sidetracked by his eccentricities, focusing on the pills and gloves and scarves — missing the man, the magic and the message behind his music.

“AMERICAN MASTERS artfully pierces through the myths and misconceptions about this humming and hunched figure, whose fingers glided across the piano as no one’s before or since. The film unravels the layers of an iconic, but intensely private, musician who had a revolutionary understanding of the Baroque masters — and a sentimental love for Barbara Streisand and Petula Clark.

“Gould followed his sensational 1955 New York City concert debut at the age of 22 by taking his talent to the Soviet Union and became an equally prodigious star there. But, after a decade-long thriving international career, he defied the critics and shocked and disappointed his fans by leaving the concert circuit completely.

“In 1964, he chose to focus exclusively on the recording arts, believing that this medium could create a transcendental relationship between artist and audience, overcoming the limitations of time and space. He used music to reach across language, culture and ideology, rediscovering Bach for a new generation and always, intentionally or not, perpetuating the cloud of mystery that surrounded him.

“This film considers the western cult of celebrity that surrounded this reclusive artist — the myth is humanized and viewers are given the opportunity to grasp the passion and inspiration that gave rise to his genius and incomparable power of expression. Told with the benefit of his remarkable recordings and through interviews with those who knew him best — his lover, his manager, his personal assistant, his collaborators — Gould is revealed and newly revered.”

For a rave review, use this link:

And here is a link to more information from PBS:

No. 2: At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 29: Great Performances offers “Celebration: Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic With Juan Diego Florez

The young, Venezuela-born superstar conductor Dudamel (below) – he is described as “the Latin Lenny” in reference to Bernstein — is setting the classical world in its ear and inspiring hope for reaching young audiences and non-white audiences around the country and the world.

Florez (below) has established quite the reputation for his strong lyrical voice and his high C’s, will perform Latin American songs and bel canto arias.

It should be a terrific, can’t-sit-still broadcast.

For more information, here is a link:

No. 3:  8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 31, Live From Lincoln Center “New York Philharmonic New Year’s Eve With Lang Lang.” The concert stars conductor Alan Gilbert (below top) and pianist Lang Lang (below bottom) in an all-Tchaikovsky program. The programs includes the famous “Polonaise” from the opera “Eugene Onegin,” the ever-popular Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Lang Lang, and the second act of “The Nutcracker” – all from Avery Fisher Hall.

Here is a link for more information about this gala concert:

No. 4: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 1, Great Performances “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2011.” It features lots of Strauss waltzes and scenes of Vienna. The post-Walter Cronkite host is again Julie Andrews (below).

Use this link for a preview:

Happy listening!

Happy viewing!

And Happy New Year!

Which program or concert did you like most and why?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

What does classical music need to prosper and where should it be headed in 2011?

December 26, 2010
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A reminder: Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast J.S. Bach‘s “Christmas Oratorio” today starting at noon and Wisconsin Public Television will broadcast “American Masters” featuring the critically acclaimed documentary “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould”  on Monday night at 8 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Can classical music speak for itself these days?

How can it  reach more young people?

Where should it  be performed?

Should it turn to more modern and contemporary repertoire?

Or go back to tried-and-true basics?

How should it be marketed?

These are all important and relevant questions.

The Denver Post recently featured an insightful three-part series by critic Kyle MacMillan on the challenges and troubles and potential facing classical music as well as some possible solutions to the problems.

Now that Christmas shopping and festivities are over, maybe you want something to settle in read and relax by. So here are the appropriate links:

MacMillan’s analysis offers a lot of observations and suggestions that offer room for both agreement and a disagreement.

Over the next week, I’ll feature some other things – including suggestions about how to spend those gift cards and some of the memorable moments I’ve experienced in the past year. And then on New Year’s Eve, I will name The Musician of the Year.

So stay tuned, and stay warm as we head into 2011.

Happy Playing and Happy Listening to you all.

And thanks to all of you for helping The Well-Tempered Year to break 100,000 since it started in August of 2009.

Let me know your thoughts about and reactions to the Denver Post stories.

And here is a post-Christmas gift of one of my own favorite pieces of music that I think speaks eloquently and movingly for itself:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music is a gift that brings people together in beauty

December 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Christmas Day.

Although this posting refers to an event that is now a month old, I have held it until today because I thought it was a wonderful and inspirational Christmas essay in how gifts are not always what we find under the tree or in the stocking or mailbox.

In this case, classical music is the gift, and the teaching and learning involved in it – which is to say friendship – are gifts as well.

So I hope you will enjoy this posting like one of those fascinating Letters from Paris in The New Yorker.

It is about a teacher and his student who are now old friends and performing partners.

It is about the University of Wisc0nsin-Madison School of Music.

And it is about, of course, classical music.

Specifically, it about the UW alumnus, cellist and conductor Kenneth Woods (below), who is based in Cardiff, Wales, and who has gone on to an international career, and about UW faculty member and Pro Arte Quartet cellist Parry Karp who was his teacher and now collaborator. (You can research both men with this blog’s search engine.)

I hope you enjoy Woods’ letter or essay:

Hello Madison music lovers:

While Jake Stockinger was introducing many of you to my work on the music of Hans Gál there recently, I brought a little bit of Madison musical life to Wales.

My former cello teacher and dear friend Parry Karp came over for a week to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra on a program that also included Dvorak’s 7th Symphony (my favorite work by Dvorak, which is saying a lot) and Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Overture.

To say that Parry and I go way back is to slightly understate the case. We met at UW Summer Music Clinic many, many years ago when Parry (below) was teaching the cello and string master classes and I was an ambitious young WYSO student heading for music school.

Parry’s teaching and playing made a huge impression on me then — so much so, that when I finished my undergrad work at Indiana University, I knew the time was right to come back to Madison to do a master’s degree with Parry.

Those two years were truly life changing. I learned so much about music and cello, but also about teaching from him.

Since leaving Madison, conducting has taken up more and more of my time, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to do a number of concertos with Parry as my soloist.

Our first project was fairly obvious: the Cello Concerto by Dvorak (below). But since then, we’ve done some huge projects that tiptoed around the more esoteric corners of the cello repertoire.

First up was Prokofiev’s massive and thrilling Symphony-Concerto. Then came Saint-Saens’ rarely heard Second Cello Concerto (not the one you all know, but the insanely virtuosic later one, written on two staves, like piano music — it’s no wonder almost nobody plays it, even though it is gorgeous).

Most recently, we played Ernst Bloch’s massive Suite for Viola (or Cello) and Orchestra. Originally for Viola and Piano, we think our performance might have been the first time the cello version had been performed with orchestra. What shocking neglect of a major work by a major composer!

The concerto by Elgar (below) is hardly so obscure. It’s practically the national concerto of Great Britain, and is right up there with the Dvorak for most often heard cello concerto in the repertoire.

I’ve played it a number of times as a cellist. In some ways, it’s my favorite concerto to play. It has everything a soloist could want, but it’s really the coda of the last movement — where Elgar seems to be saying goodbye to everything in life he loved and understood — that I love playing the most. It’s some of the most moving music ever written.

I’ve also conducted it, most recently with one of my own cello students playing it, which was great fun.

So, why do it again with Parry? Well, because I found out a few years back that he’d never played it. He’s played everything else (seriously, everything else — if there is a cellist on earth with a bigger rep than Parry, I don’t know who it is). But somehow, the occasion never arose to play the Elgar. I thought this was crazy. Parry has many gifts as a player, but it’s his lyricism that is unique, and the Elgar is about the ultimate lyrical piece.

So, when the Abergavenny asked me for the Elgar, I asked Parry for the Elgar, and to my delight, he said yes.

I’d had a look-through of the orchestra music before his arrival, and our first rehearsal was the day after his arrival. The concerto has some unique and surprising challenges for the orchestra.

It’s not hard to play the notes, but it’s what we call “bitty.” There are lots of spots where you have to wait and wait, then jump on board with something rather exposed with little warning. There are some treacherous tempo changes too. Fortunately, Parry’s interpretation was refreshingly sane, and the orchestra follows well.

Between rehearsals, Parry and I got involved in a musical mystery. After 100 years of everyone using the fine Novello edition, some bright light at Barenreiter got the idea to commission a new critical edition. If you shell out about $100, you can find out there’s one note changed from the old edition — a B-flat in the slow second movement is changed to a B natural.

It’s not even that new; the old orchestral score is also B natural. The B-flat sounds funny and seems like and obvious mistake because it breaks a long chain of descending chromatic chords.

Still, out of curiosity, Parry and I listened to the recording of Elgar himself conducting it with cellist Beatrice Harrison (below) and the old recording wan amazing document! And there it was — B natural. Against all our habits and analytical instincts, we agreed that the composer must be right, so B natural it was on Sunday.

Quite a shock to the cellists in the orchestra who know it well, I’m sure, but I think we’re both convinced.

Our second and final rehearsal was the dress. Things move fast, and there’s lots to do, getting used to the hall, breaking in the brass and tympani and making a few adjustments based on our chats during the week.

In spite of bitter cold weather, we managed a sell-out. Parry played wonderfully and his encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s C minor Suite, was a marvel), and we got a nice review that appeared on this blog Dec. 4.

After so many projects, what’s next? More Elgar?

Maybe Parry can conduct, and I’ll play.

I think he’d be a natural on the podium.

–Kenneth Woods

Merry Christmas to all! And may we all find more friends and partners through music in the coming year!

The Ear

Posted in Classical music

Classical music doesn’t need a concert hall to reach you – and just maybe has more meaning outside the concert hall or studio

December 24, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is Christmas Eve, when the expected joins the unexpected – going all the way back to the very first one.

So here is an early Christmas gift that gave shoppers in a mall a wonderful holiday surprise and treat.

Others like it too, apparently, judging from the fact that it has gone viral with tens of millions of viewers.

It has been called a Random Act of Culture. I call it Random Handel.

I suspect that that tells us that we are all just waiting to be ambushed by more beauty. So never underestimate the power of street musicians and buskers to move us.

Here is the popular YouTube posting of the event in a food court. If you have already seen it, see it again and tell me it doesn’t move you. And if you haven’t seen it – well, enjoy it and pass it along:

Hallelujah, indeed. It has already inspired copy-cat acts – in this case a good thing.

But if you want to try one yourself, be forewarned: Setting up a “flash mob” act of music or random culture can be problematic:

Still, here’s hoping the new year will see more classical music in more unusual and unexpected places.

Here is a link to a piece about reviving old holiday music:

And, finally, here is one of my musical favorites for the season from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” which Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast on its entirety on Christmas Day this Sunday at noon.

Have you heard a flash mob or random act performance?

Have you taken part in one?

What was it like? What did you think of it?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: ‘Winterreise’ expresses the bleak final year of the dying Schubert

December 23, 2010

Editor’s note: On Tuesday night I saw and heard one of the finest and most moving performances of the entire year: Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” was performed at the First Unitarian Society by UW baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer, flanked only by candles, evergreen boughs on small tables and four poinsettias, was intimate and thoroughly involving.

The concert, which had a close to sold-out house of 450 or so and which raised $1,339 for the Second Harvest Food Bank, was the most memorable winter solstice I have ever spent. It drew a prolonged standing ovation (below) for good reason.

To mark the special occasion at holiday time, here is a special post that explores the larger meaning of the music by a frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker (below).

Barker is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at theUniversity 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

It was an apt idea to present Franz Schubert’s remarkable song cycle, “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”) on December 21, marking the winter solstice and the official beginning of winter.

This was the offering of UW baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer in the new Atrium hall of the First Unitarian Society.

The two (below) are well accustomed to working together. Rowe is particularly devoted to German Lieder, and his capacity for probing expressiveness was applied handsomely to this work. Working in perfect accord, singer and pianist brought genuine feeling to their work, engaging the audience (myself included) in a totally absorbing dramatic experience.

An interesting novelty was the projection of a translation of the poetry keyed to the music, which I found engaged one’s listening more thoroughly than the usual practice of printed texts.

There is nothing else quite like the “Winterreise,” by Schubert himself or any other composer. Using a set of 24 poems by the German Romantic writer Wilhelm Müller, Schubert created a musical and emotional journey of unparalleled power. The young poet, defeated in love, must set forth on a long passage, through bleak winter landscapes, his misery and self-pity only rarely and briefly relieved, on his path to death and oblivion. It’s a perfect example of Romantic angst and youthful all-or-nothing gaming with life.

Schubert composed the cycle between February and October 1827.

What gives this austere masterpiece of art song added power is that we know that Schubert (below) wrote it while aware he was under a sentence of death. Four years earlier, he had been diagnosed with incurable syphilis, and his days were henceforth marked. But he pushed on, recurrently transcending any brooding, continuing tirelessly to compose, writing lots of pieces small and large.

In his final year he could reach new heights in the “Great” C Major Symphony (No. 9), and in his last three Piano Sonatas–those written in September, a month before his death on November 19, 1828, some two months before what would have been his 32nd birthday.

The more I listen to Schubert’s major late works, the more struck I am by the image of a still-young man struggling with the knowledge of imminent mortality.

I remember hearing, only a few weeks apart, Thomas Quasthoff singing the “Winterreise” of 1827, and players with Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society rendering the fabulous String Quintet in C major, composed in August-September 1828. And, more recently, hearing our Ancora String Quartet present the last of Schubert’s String Quartets, the one in G major, composed in June of 1826.

As I listened to these matchless scores, especially the two chamber works, I could not avoid perceiving how Schubert, as he poured out music of melting beauty, constantly lurched into music of terror and even despair. One always has to be careful, of course, about inferring too much autobiography in a composer’s music. But in those works, it has seemed to me impossible not to hear Schubert’s secret emotions bursting forth.

Such expression was, in a way, paradoxical, because Schubert was an amiable, genial, very sociable person, who loved to gather with friends down to the end of his days (below, at the piano). I know we often think of great composers we would like to have met and had a talk with. Some, many even, would have been formidable. But Schubert would have topped my personal list of choices, for I know that he quickly would have become my friend.

Many years ago, on a visit to Vienna, I sought out many of the numerous places in the city identified with its great composers. In a run-down apartment building, then inhabited mostly by refugees from Yugoslavia, there was a flat that had been occupied by Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand.

It had current residents, but one room was reserved for visitors. It was the room where Schubert died (below, apparently restored and renovated). Stiflingly small, bereft of any decoration, its walls stripped down to bare plaster, in its nakedness it screamed out, the more blatantly, the terrible loss we suffered in Schubert’s premature death in its shabby confines.

I wanted to weep, and I had to flee. For what departed from us in that tragic chamber was not only one of our greatest musical geniuses, but a friend, one who can still cry out to us and turn his anguish into a timeless expression of human pain and fragility.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: NPR reveals the difference between a carol and a hymn

December 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Music, especially choral music, is inescapable at this holiday time of the year.

But recently I heard a good program on National Public Radio that discussed the difference between a carol and a hymn – something I myself was not sure about.

The expert was Philip Brunelle (below), a well-recognized performer  and scholar of vocal music who conducts Vocal Essence.

He made many interesting points and cited many great examples, going back to the Middle Ages and coming up to today.

I was particularly struck about the origins and change in dance rhythms in holiday music, and about how we seem to be genetically hard-wired to remember melodies that proceed step-wise.

Take a listen — the audio version is better than the text — and let me know what you think.

Here is a link to Brunelle’s group:

And here are some all-time favorite carols? Or is it hymns?

And my favorite for the quiet it exudes:

Merry Christmas and Peace to All in the New Year.

And a reminder that the time-honored and deeply moving Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, begun in 1918 at King’s College in Cambridge, England, will be broadcasts Friday morning, Christmas Eve, at 9 a.m. CST on Wisconsin Public Radio.

What is your favorite carol at holiday time?

Your favorite holiday hymn?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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