The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Labor disputes, money woes still plague the New York City Opera and American symphony orchestras. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev cleans up the Tchaikovsky competition while another Russian conductor is the victim of a run-in with Vladimir Putin. The summer BBC Proms continue to thrive. And Spotify comes to the US.

July 23, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The news on from the classical music front continues to be a mix of good and bad, of encouragement and discouragement.

See for yourself:

ITEM: Opera stars try to rescue New York City Opera (below) with protests over the current plan for saving it by moving from Lincoln Center:


ITEM: The labor dispute with Louisville Symphony Orchestra (below) grows more heated and divisive:

ITEM: Maybe you didn’t know it needed it, but celebrity Russian conductor Valery Gergiev (below) cleaned up the famed Tchaikovsky Competition:

ITEM: However, another Russian conductor, Mikhail Arkadyev, has not been renewed because of anti-Putin remarks he made:

ITEM: European online playlist and music-sharing service Spotify comes to the US:

ITEM: The legendary summertime  concerts the BBC Proms (below) continue to thrive in a general atmosphere of anxiety about the future of classical music and live concerts. Why?

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Madison Early Music Festival 2011 revealed and explored a new world of music in the New World

July 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

How did the Madison Early Music Festival go this year? I asked a veteran early music fan.

His response? “I would say it was, to used a much overused journalist’s word, revelatory.”

Well, The Ear would completely agree, even just on the basis of the concluding All-Festival concert last Saturday night.

For various reasons, I couldn’t make it to other events during the 12th annual week-long festival that explored early music in the New World. (Next year, MEMF will offer the same theme, but go north of the Mexican border into the US and French Canada.) But I heard high praise for the faculty concert and for the imported group Chatham Baroque, among other events.

Was such praise exaggerated?

Not at all, judging from what I heard during the All-Festival concert.

The evening got off on the right foot with a fascinating and engaging slide-lecture by guest scholar Drew Edward Davies (below) of Northwestern University. He pulled together many strands of scholarship about music in the new world in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. He synthesized musicology, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, art history, religion and other disciplines to build a great and accessible sense of context to the music that the audience was about to hear.

Then came the actual performances, with a stage filled by dozens of instrumentalists and singers (below) performing under the talented guest conductor Kristina Boerger from New York City. The program featured a dozen different composers and focused on reconstructions of Vespers Music for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Nativity.

And The Old Veteran was right: It was nothing short of revelatory.

Of course, much of the music derived from the Old World and transplanted composers. So some of it sounded familiar (below) and reminded one of other more famous Old World composers.

But the music and its history also dealt with issues that are still alive today.

For example, clearly, the “Old World” music ended up incorporating many elements of indigenous New World culture, from notation (below) and languages to sounds and dance rhythms, especially as heard in percussion.

When you think about it, the conflict between Old World and New World is still relevant, even five centuries after much of this music was composed and first performed. After all, it wasn’t until that 20th century pioneer, Leonard Bernstein (below), that American-born and American-trained conductors were allowed to direct major American orchestras. And you can argue that there still exists a bias that favors Old World music over New World music, at least in some quarters.

And the question of how to incorporate vernacular native culture is still a major issue, even in a largely postcolonial global culture. Cultural synthesis is still the goal for many groups, including the famed Kronos String Quartet, and for many Asian and Latin American composers today. We saw a painting  (below) of The Nativity, for example, with the typical Joseph, Mary and Jesus with Indian chief instead of the Wise Men. And we heard ancient Aztec language that was permitted in liturgy by the Roman Catholic Church and is still spoken by one million people today.

So the concert was every bit as eye-opening as one hoped.

But even more, it was ear-opening.

What a delight it was to hear Baroque and pre-Baroque music from the old New World. One wonder why such music, which often seems so infused with energy and infectious vitality, isn’t performed and recorded more often, or played on the radio, more often, or seen on TV more often (see bottom).

I still don’t expect to hear a lot of it.

Which is all the more reason why I am grateful for the outstanding performance that the Madison Early Music Festival participants,  teachers and students as well as guest performers alike, put together in such a short time and with such exceptional results.

It certainly whets the appetite to hear more New World music – which is still waiting to be explored and performed  – next summer.

Did you attend the Madison Early Music Festival this summer?

What did you think of the concerts and events?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Gilbert and Sullivan’s rarely heard “Utopia, Limited” gets a timely hearing starting this weekend from the Madison Savoyards

July 21, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is it classical music? Or is it popular music?

Is it opera? Or is it more like a Broadway musical?

Well, I didn’t think it was classical or opera. But then a classical music teacher I highly admire and respect it was. And several important classical magazines included works by Gilbert and Sullivan (below) among classical offerings.

So who am I to disagree?

Anyway, this coming weekend sees the opening run over the next two weekends during which the venerable Madison Savoyards will present the rarely heard and rarely staged G&S show “Utopia, Limited.” Terry Kiss Frank is the stage director and Blake Walter is the music director.

Utopia Limited” is about unrequited love (not so unusual) and corporate bailouts (unusual).

After the nation’s Great Recession and Wisconsin’s Walker Spring, what could be more timely? Which also explains why that gadfly of corporate capitalism, socialist playwright, wit and vegetarian extraordinaire George Bernard Shaw, looked on it as one of his G&S favorites.

Here is the official press release, with rehearsal photos by Adam F. Brown.

WHAT: Madison Savoyards Present “Utopia, Limited”

WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays, July 22-23 and July 29-30 at 7:30 p.m. ; Sunday matinees on July 24 and July 31 at 3 p.m.

WHERE: UW Music Hall, 925 Bascom Mall (below)

HOW MUCH: $40 for premium seats; $30 for adults; $28 for seniors; $15 for students; and $5 children under 13.

For more information, visit:

You can also contact the Wisconsin Union Theater box office at (608) 262-2201. Or visit:

PLOT SUMMARY: King Paramount, of the lazy island of Utopia, has been kept in check for years by two Wise Men and the Public Exploder. If the Wise Men find that the King is remiss in any of his duties, the Public Exploder will explode the King. King Paramount sends his eldest daughter, Princess Zara, off to college in England in order to bring back their “civilized” ways back to his kingdom. Zara returns with the Flowers of Progress– some British gentlemen (including Zara’s newfound love interest) with plenty of advice on how to improve life on the tropical island.

The transformation of Utopia into a “more perfect” version of Britain unfolds.  Though it seems to become too perfect; the country is now so clean, well-behaved and peaceful that law enforcers, healthcare workers and members of the armed forces are all out of work. The King figures out a legal way to remove the checks to his monarchical powers by turning each citizen (including himself) into a limited liability company.  Since the Public Exploder cannot explode a company, he now can no longer explode the King.

While the people of Wisconsin may recognize some of their own struggles in those of Utopia’s citizens, this show promises more singing than a rally at the capitol — and perhaps more laughter than watching the news (not a palm tree out of place).  Join Madison Savoyards in their 49th season for this timely staging and see how the Utopians overcome forbidden romance and loss of power to take control of their own fate.


Madison Savoyards, Ltd. has presented fully staged productions with orchestra of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas every summer in Madison, Wisconsin since 1963.  More information about this and previous productions can be found at

Posted in Classical music

Madison Music update: Despite heat, TONIGHT’S Concert on the Square ABBA tribute will be performed as scheduled at 7 p.m.

July 20, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

In June, I promised I would provide updates about the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square when I could.

Here is the latest word in a WCO press release:

MADISON, Wis. (July 20, 2011)

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will perform tonight’s Concerts on the Square featuring ABBA tribute band Arrival as scheduled at 7 p.m.

“We decided to announce our weather call early due to the high volume of calls we’ve been receiving” said Doug Gerhart, executive director.  He continues “Because there is an excessive heat warning, we ask the public to use their best judgment when deciding to attend the concert.”

Those with chronic health conditions and the elderly are especially susceptible to the high temperatures and should stay home. Young children are also vulnerable, so parents should understand the risks if bringing their families.  If there are any doubts about whether or not you can withstand the heat, it is better to stay home.

Know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Wear lightweight and loose fitting clothing and drink plenty of water. Sit in the shade whenever possible and limit alcohol consumption.

Emergency Management officials said that anyone overcome by heat should be moved to a cool and shaded location. Heat stroke is an emergency and people should call 911. Symptoms such as dizziness, muscle weakness and nausea are signs that a person is suffering a heat-related illness.



Posted in Classical music

Classical Music: Green Lake Festival of Music concludes this weekend with three concerts. Opera in the Park gets another thumbs up.

July 20, 2011
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AN ADDITION: Here is a link to yet another review — the fourth so far — of the Madison Opera‘s Opera in the Park:

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see the final events of this summer’s Green Lake Festival of Music, with concerts on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday night.

For full information, including directions and tickets, here is a link to the festival website:

Here is the schedule of events:

FRIDAY: The Vocal Ensemble Calmus (below top), Friday, July 22, at 7:30 p.m. (pre-concert conversation at 6:45 p.m.)  in the Thrasher Opera House (below bottom), where a post-concert reception will also be held.

In 2002 the Calmus Ensemble was chosen to participate in the national Konzerte Junger Künstler (concerts of selected prize-winning young German musicians). At the 4th International Robert Schumann Choral Competition, they took the first place, just as they did in the finale of the national a cappella competition, Jugend Kulturell (Cultural Youth), the International Contest for Vocal Ensembles in Tampere, Finland and the 37th Tolosa Choral Contest in Tolosa, Spain.

For more information, here is a link:

SATURDAY: On Saturday at noon, organist Nathan Laube  (below) will give a free concert at the 
First Congregational Church in Oshkosh.

For more information, visit:

SUNDAY: On Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Rodman Center for the Arts at Ripon College (below bottom) there will be a choral concert, under the direction of conductor Stephen Alltop (below top) as a finale entitled “A World of Songs, A World of Glory.”

The richness of music from Africa to Ireland and Russia to Latin America will be celebrated, featuring the Festival Choir, soloists Tameron Conseur, Chris Albanese, Ace Gangoso, Amanda Koopman, and Josefien Stoppelenburg, under the direction of conductor Stephen Alltop.  Works include Scarlatti’s “Te Deum Laudamus, “Wana Baraka” a Kenyan folk song, “Water Night” by Whitacre, and “Fill Me to the Parting Glass,” an Irish folk song.

A post-concert reception is at Rodman Center for the Arts.

If you go to any of these events, or you went to other Green Lake Festival concerts, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Saving the land and hearing great music make for an outstanding double-header at the Prairie Rhapsody benefit concert

July 19, 2011

An ADDITION: Yesterday I linked to two reviews of the Madison Opera’s “Opera in the Park” on Saturday night. After they were posted, Greg Hettmansberger’s posted his review for Dane101. Here is a link:

By Jacob Stockinger

It would be hard to imagine a better way to meld classical music and land conservation than the Prairie Rhapsody benefit concert that took place last Thursday night at the Holy Wisdom monastery on Highway M in Middleton.

Even at $50 a head, the annual event drew a record crowd of 250, according to Holy Wisdom sources, and for good reason.

The musical performers were period musicians Madison-based keyboardist Trevor Stephenson, who played the fortepiano, and several musicians from Chicago: violinist Brandi Berry, cellist Anna Steinhoff and soprano Emily Birsan (below), who studied at Lawrence University and the UW-Madison and who now is in a program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Several things made the event, which included light dinner and desserts plus wine and other beverages (below top and bottom), a success.

One attraction was the lovely setting. The monastery itself is set in a prairie field that seems perfect for such an event. You can gaze at meadows, fields, woods and prairie from the outside (bel0w top) and even from inside the large windows in the architecturally handsome and crisp new buildings and assembly hall (below bottom).  This would also be a great place for local music groups to rent for more concerts, by the way.

From the hearty applause that came between movements, you could tell that two crowds were present: What I will call The Music People and  The Land People, including of course many crossovers.

But what brought both of them together were two things: the pleasure of great music wonderfully explained and performed; and the cause of restoring the land  (the Benedictine prioress informed the crowd that the program has already reclaimed to a pre-settlement state some 100 acres of prairie plus an 11-acre, 10,000-year-old glacial lake fittingly named named Lost Lake and has also restored trails and ponds to improve run-off and protect nearby Lake Mendota.

The director of the music program was the well-known early music specialist Trevor Stephenson (bel0w), who founded and directs the Madison Bach Musicians. He proved the other glue of the fundraising event.

This was his second year, and you can easily see why. He didn’t sound a false note for 2-1/2 hours. Last year, he and others performed Baroque music. This time, he chose music from the Classical era – works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. It was a fitting choice for a program if you recall that the 18th century gave rise to notions of natural law and to even Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “the noble savage,” a respect for the state of nature as well as civilization.

But more than the fine performances, it was Stephenson’s unbeatable talent as an educator and teacher, a witty and congenial laugh-worthy popularizer in the mold of Leonard Bernstein, who bridged the two communities. He was nothing short of a born natural as he explained how the fortepiano, the successor to the harpsichord and the predecessor to the modern piano, worked and why it worked so well with this particular music. He also had the string players explain the differences between their instruments and more modern ones.

I particularly liked the way he organized the program for variety.

First came Stephenson himself in a fortepiano solo (Mozart’ dark Fantasy in D Minor). Then came Emily Birsan in three of Haydn’s London songs in English followed by Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 305 with Brandi Berry (below). (It used theme-and-variations, the ultimate rational form for the Age of Reason.)

After a brief intermission, during which Stephenson did more explaining and demonstrating (below top), came: two Schubert songs (including the famous “The Trout”); Beethoven’s early Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2, with Anna Steinhoff (below middle); and two Mozart works, a song and then an opera aria where the fortepiano, violin and cello filled in as a bare bones orchestra (below bottom) – all very successfully and impressively. And there was even encore to send the satisfied listeners home: a Schubert song about night and dreams.

And why not that song? After all, this was a dream of a concert and a dream of a fundraiser — described by Holy Wisdom as a “great financial success” thanks to both tickets sales and donations. I simply can’t imagine a more enjoyable night replete with socializing amid nature and high art, all to raise money for a great cause. And it all went down so easily, so enjoyably.

The fun-loving Mozart, the cheerful Haydn and the social Schubert would have been proud and approving, as would that most ardent of nature lovers, Beethoven.

Did you go to the Prairie Rhapsody concert?

What did you think?

Would you consider going next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music: Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park was a big hit. Next year’s Madison Early Music Festival will explore Thomas Jefferson’s library and early music north of Mexico.

July 18, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Despite the heat and humidity Saturday night, the Madison Opera‘s 10th annual Opera in the Park, which wrapped up the company’s 50th anniversary season and marked the beginning of Kathryn Smith‘s tenure as general director — but  which The Ear unfortunately couldn’t attend — drew rave reviews.

Here is a link to the review in The Capital Times by Lindsay Christians:

And another link to the review by Sandy Tabachnick in Isthmus:


And here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Dane 101:

Saturday night also offered a terrific wrap-up to this year’s Madison Early Music Festival MEMF. The quality of the music and the quality of the performances at the impressive All-Festival concert were both extraordinary – and I will do a more detailed review  of it later this week.

But one of the highlights of the concert (below), which was well attended, given the competition from Opera in the Park, was the announcement of the theme for next year, when MEMF will hold its 13th annual event.

Co-founder and co-director Cheryl Bensman Rowe (below), a fine performing singer, announced the MEMF would continue its focus on early music in the New World.

This year’s the theme was basically Mexican and South American music, composers and performance practices.

Next year, the same theme will be carried north into the fledgling United States and into French-Canada.

According to Rowe, it will also touch on Moravian music in the early colonies and include performances of music that was in the library of President Thomas Jefferson (below), who was not only a Founder and the author of the Declaration of Independence, but also a humanist and scholar with almost universal interests who founded the University of Virginia.

“It promises to be quite exciting,” Rowe said.

That’s an understatement, especially given the timing with a presidential election – which may or may not be coincidental.

The dates are July 7-14, 2012.

I doubt that detailed information for next year has been posted yet, but it is not too soon to plan and pencil it in your datebooks. If you are interested you couldn’t go wrong by visiting the festival’s h9ome page and pursuing the contacts you find there.

Here is a link:

Information about the workshop schedule and enrollment is available, or by phoning 608 263-6670.

What do you think of the theme for next year?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: What makes American music American?

July 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Two weeks ago tomorrow, a lot of radio stations and individual listeners were playing it patriotic and celebrating the Fourth of July by playing works by American composers, including programs devoted exclusively to such works.

But what makes an American piece of music sound American?

Is there something that links Aaron Copland (below), Edward MacDowell Charles Ives and George Gershwin to Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Elliott Carter?

American maestro Marin Alsop (below), who studied on Leonard Bernstein and who heads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has some interesting and engaging thoughts on the matter.

What do you think of what Alsop says?

Do you think American composers share certain traits?

What are your favorite pieces of American classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music: Tchaikovsky Competition winners announced. Seiji Ozawa wins Japan’s “Nobel” Prize. Josef Suk dies. Daniel Barenboim to stay on in Berlin.

July 16, 2011
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REMINDERS: The Madison Early Music Festival’ wraps up with its All-Festival concert is tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, with a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. The theme is early music in the New World. At 8 p.m., in Garner Park, the Madison Opera‘s 10th annual Opera in the Park takes place and could draw more than last year’s 14,000 people. You can look at posts about both events that were on this blog earlier this week and last week.  

By Jacob Stockinger

Maybe you missed some happening in classical music this week.

Hope these news clips bring you up to date a bit:

ITEM: Josef Suk, great violinist and great-grandson of Dvorak, has died:

ITEM: An ailing Seiji Ozawa, the American-trained conductor and and former longtime music director of the Boston Symphony, has won a prestigious prize form Japan:

ITEM: How reliable is storing music “in the cloud”?

ITEM: Ex-Chicago maestro Daniel Barenboim to stay on with Berlin Opera:

ITEM: Tchaikovsky Competition winners, including pianist Danill Trifonov (below)  are announced:

Here are two samples of Trifonov’s playing, both a famously dramatic and virtuosic concerto and a beautifully quiet and lyrical  Scarlatti sonata:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: Pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Claudio Abbado team up to make the most interesting CD of Rachmaninoff concertos I’ve ever heard.

July 15, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I don’t know if the new Deutsche Grammophon recording by Yuja Wang of Rachmaninoff’s early Piano Concerto No. 2 and his more mature “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” is the best recording I have ever heard of those two popular works. After all, they are competing with some pretty memorable versions, including those by Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stephen Hough.

But I know this much: It is the most interesting recording of these often played and often recorded works that I have heard in a long time, maybe ever. And that is a remarkable achievement.

More curious and remarkable still, the reason for that accomplishment is not primarily the outstanding and impressive playing of pianist Yuja Wang, the beautiful young phenom who seems to have flawless fingers as well as nerves of steel and irresistible charisma.

No, the secret to this recording – at least to my ears — is the conductor Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (below).

One usually focuses understandably on the titanic piano part in these concertos. After all, Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was one of the great virtuosos who performed as well as composed. But what this recording shows is that Rachmaninoff also understood the art of orchestrating.

To listen to these recordings is to hear some orchestral moments – themes and polyphony, dialogues and harmonies — that somehow escaped other recordings that focus more on the keyboard virtuosity more than on the music. Under the veteran and justly renowned Abbado (below), color and structure matter here more than virtuosity and schmaltzy melodies, though they receive their due too. Indeed, the piano often sounds like it is part of the orchestra.

In short, the Grammy-nominated 24-year-old Wang, — who already has two outstanding solo CDs on DG to her credit (“Sonatas and Etudes” and “Transformations,”) based on theme and variations) – has turned in an outstanding and memorable concerto debut.

I find her and Abbado especially convincing in the much overplayed and hackneyed Piano Concerto No. 2 that gave rise to the pop songs “Never Gonna Love Again” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

For the past 50 years or so, Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto has overshadowed the second as the more serious and more difficult work, the Mount Everest of piano concertos. (Think of its parodistic role in the film “Shine.”)

Yet the composer himself (below) reportedly said that his second concerto was more difficult one because it was more complicated and musically subtle, if not more technically challenging. This recording confirms Rachmaninoff’s own view.

This version of the Paganini Variations also offers a good chance to showcase the orchestra as well as the piano, though it seems more mainstream, if no less convincing, in its interpretation.

I don’t yet know if I will listen to this recording more than to others, though the chances are good. There is still something primal about treating a lush, Romantic warhorse as a lush, Romantic warhorse. Who doesn’t like being swept away? But I know I will absolutely listen to it from time to time as a tonic to other more predictable versions – and perhaps more than those others. Time will tell.

One leaves this poetic, subtle and insightful recording also hoping that Wang turns in not only more solo recordings – adding to her Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Scriabin, Ravel, Stravinsky and Ligeti – but also more concertos with collaborators the equal of Abbado. I would love to hear that kind of collaboration in Mozart concertos, or Beethoven’ Concerto No. 4, or the two  Chopin Piano Concertos.

It seems that with each new recording, the Beijing-born and American-trained Wang, who has built a reputation of filling in at the last minute and who seems to have a repertoire as immense as her talent, is ascending higher on the scale of must-hear piano talents.

She leaves you wanting to hearing more recordings by her and especially to hear her live. Is there higher praise or promise?

What do you think of Yuja Wang?

Of her Rachmaninoff piano concertos?

Of her solo recordings and live performances?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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