The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We should hear more chamber music versions of symphonies and concertos, The Ear says after hearing Harvard scholar Robert Levin perform Mozart.

August 31, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Don’t misunderstand me: I love concertos of all kinds and particularly piano concertos.

There is something deeply appealing and satisfying about hearing a gifted soloist go head-to-head with a big symphony orchestra. It is an exciting experience, whether they are playing in unison, on parallel tracks, dialoging back and forth or even doing direct battle with each other for dominance.

But one of the lessons of the Token Creek Festival, both this summer and in past summers, is that there are other alternative ways to hear concertos – ways that may even be more informing and insightful than the usual way.

On Sunday afternoon, I heard Harvard scholar and keyboard master Robert Levin and five string players (below) perform a chamber music reduction or arrangement (with winds omitted) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the so-called “Coronation” Concerto (K. 537).

Levin improvised cadenzas in all three movements and on the program’s first half he also performed a fine reconstruction he has updated and redone of a unfinished and originally disjointed piano trio (K. 442) by Mozart, below. (Here is a link to a review of the full concert by John W. Barker of Isthmus:

Last summer Levin scored a big success with a similar arrangement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. And earlier this summer, I heard the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society perform a similar arrangement, made by the 18th century impresario Solomon, of a late Haydn symphony.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – those are some pretty heavy-weight composers, the most pedigree musicians of the pivotal Classical era.

So these special arrangements are not mere vanity versions or exercises.

They were made, according to Levin (below), for practical reasons. They could be performed for a lot less money – after all,  professional symphony orchestras didn’t even exist until the mid-19th century — and they could be done in royal courts and even private homes. Their scale was “do-able” and they helped spread classical music, which we sure need these days. They proved accessible to performers and listeners alike — and still do.

But beyond the physical and financial practicalities of these arrangements and reductions, you can also add an esthetic appeal. You get to hear these concertos with a certain intimacy and transparency that are very listener-friendly. In fact, you get to hear the parts and the interplay of the various instruments and the soloists even more vividly. That’s something that chamber orchestras start to do but these arrangements take you even further.

In fact, they are also great rehearsals for hearing the greatest of piano trios, quartets and quintets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich and so many others.

Just listen this particular snippet, only 95 seconds long, of Levin and the Token Creek string quintet that back him up in the “Coronation” Concerto.

Given the budget constraints of so many classical music organizations these days, these chamber versions seem even more viable and desirable than they ordinarily might.

The same applies to recording them: I am absolutely certain it is cheaper to perform and record these versions that the full-scale versions. Curiously, however, I know of only a couple such recordings, including one by pianist Alfred Brendel (below) made of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, with the Alban Berg String Quartet. (Maybe readers can inform me about others.)

Why doesn’t some enterprising small CD label do Mozart’s full cycle of such chamber music arrangements of his piano concertos?

Such works even seem a natural project in an era that is exploring early music, period instruments and historical performance practices.

So why not record some of the other versions of Haydn symphonies and Beethoven concertos?

There may even be a lot more of these works. I can’t find a reliable source of the grand total of such arrangements – so I hope readers can again help me. But I bet it’s pretty big, given that they were made before there were big professional symphony orchestras and before home had radios, TVs and record, tape or CD players to bring classical music into home life.

Anyway, this Mozart concert by Robert Levin helped scholarship spill over into real life – which is part of what a good concert should do, no?

Do you know these chamber music arrangements of piano concertos or other concertos?

What do you think of them?

Would you like to hear more of them?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music Q&A: Meet Daniel Grabois, the new horn professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who makes his local performing debut next Monday night with the 35th Karp Family FREE Labor Day Concert

August 30, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Next Monday night — Labor Day night — at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, summer turns suddenly to fall.

That’s when the traditional opening of the new season at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and of the Madison area in general, takes place: The FREE 35th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert.

Guest performers will join family members for the concert that is historically the best attended event of the UW Faculty Concert Series – and for good reason. In 35 years, they have never repeated a piece. That is a huge repertoire for them to play and for us to hear.

Three generations comprise this year’s ensemble, augmented by three guest artists from the school’s faculty. Participants include violinist Suzanne Beia; violist Katrin Talbot; cellists Parry Karp and Ariana Karp; clarinetist Linda Bartley; hornist Daniel Grabois, who will be making his debut public appearance as assistant professor of horn; and pianists Howard and Frances Karp.

The appealing and unusual program consists of the following works: Cello duos by Sol Cohen (1891-1988); “Andante and Variations” for two pianos, two cellos and French horn by Robert Schumann; the Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano in D minor, Op. 108, by Johannes Brahms, as transcribed for cello and piano by Parry Karp; and the rarely heard Quintet in D major for piano, violin, viola, cello and clarinet, Op. 42 by Czech composer Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900).

Hornist Daniel Grabois (below, a Romanian name pronounced gra-BOY) recently granted The Ear an e-mail interview, which will run in two parts, today and tomorrow.

Here is a capsule bio from the UW School of Music:

Here is a link to his website, which includes a biogrpahy, essays, publications and a blog:

And here is his Q&A with The Ear:

Can you tell us briefly about your background, from when you first started music lessons through your education and career to how and why you came to Madison?

I took up the horn in 5th grade. I had studied piano as a littler kid, and felt no affinity for the instrument. But the horn felt good right from the start.

I went through high school band and also played in the orchestra in the small town I grew up in (Williamstown, Mass.). In the summers in high school, I attended Kinhaven Music School, which was like paradise for me.

I went to college at Yale, so I didn’t get a performance degree. Nonetheless, I did a huge amount of horn playing at Yale, and I already knew I wanted to go into music, so I was very serious. In my last two summers in college, I was fortunate to attend the Marlboro Music Festival (below), where I played with a lot of famous musicians and a lot of incredible young players; both groups were an inspiration to me.

After college, I used some prize money I had won and moved to Paris (you have to move somewhere, right?). I thought, “Here I am in Paris, now I can play the horn.” I knew nothing about the realities of work visas and immigration, and, although I had a wonderful time, I moved to New York halfway through the year. Then I thought, “Here I am in New York, now I can play the horn.” That didn’t work so well, either. I decided to get a Masters Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, thinking (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be useful to meet other players my age and to meet the faculty.

From there, it was a slow process of working my way into the New York music world. I joined a brass quintet (we later became a sextet, with the addition of a drummer) called the Meridian Arts Ensemble (below), and we started getting busy. We won a few competitions and began making a name for ourselves, touring in Europe, Asia, South America, and of course in the US. We released a CD, then another, then more, and now we have 10. We wrote music, arranged music and recorded music.

At the same time, I was becoming busy in New York, playing orchestral concerts, chamber music, and subbing in Broadway shows. There was a lot of work in New York at the time (in the ‘90s), and at one time I was subbing on eight different Broadway shows.

My first teaching job was at Princeton University. I knew the orchestra conductor there (I played in an opera he conducted that had a HUGE solo horn part), and the horn teaching job opened up at the perfect moment, when I was on his radar. Later, I was hired to teach at The Hartt School. Now I was teaching conservatory students, and I had a lot to learn about helping young players get better.

I also had a lot to learn about staying awake behind the wheel of my car, driving to Princeton (80 minutes each way) and Hartt (over two hours each way) every week and performing almost every other night of the week. One day, I recorded the a horn concerto in Westchester County for 6 hours, drove back to the city, and played Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at night.

About three years ago, I was hired to teach at Manhattan School of Music in their new Contemporary Performance Program. I took over the next year as Chair of that program. Even though I had let Princeton go, I was at Hartt two days now, and at MSM the rest of the time (including serious email time at home), while continuing to freelance.

It was time to look for a job with a saner lifestyle. I applied for the few that came up, and got lucky with this one at UW.

I am so glad to have ended up here. I am playing with the faculty brass quintet, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, with Grabois’ predecessor Doug Hill on the left) while continuing with Meridian, and these two experiences will feed off each other beautifully. My commute is nine minutes on the bike instead of two hours each way in the car. I can collaborate with the excellent faculty, as I will begin doing this week.

In plain layperson’s terms, what makes the horn so difficult to play?

Imagine a piano keyboard, 88 keys evenly spaced. Now we’re going to stretch the bottom of the keyboard and squeeze the top, so the total length will be the same. The bottom notes are about 3 inches wide, very easy to land on with a finger. The top notes are about a quarter of an inch wide, and it’s almost impossible to hit them without nicking their neighbor. Now, imagine that you sit down at this keyboard blindfolded.

This is what it is like to play the French horn (below). The notes are closer and closer together the higher you go, and you have to play entirely by feel.

Do you have favorite pieces, solo works, chamber music or passages from orchestral works?

Some pieces are fun to play; some are fun to listen to; some are both. One of my most enjoyable experiences was playing the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. It has HUGE horn parts, which are beautifully written for the instrument (Strauss’ father was a famous horn player), and it is a beautiful opera to watch and hear.

There are pieces that I enjoy playing that are hard to hear, for example the brass quintet written for Meridian by Milton Babbitt, the eminent composer who just died last year. It is the hardest piece I’ve ever played by far, and getting through it is like running a marathon. But only the listener with the most open mind can get through its 18-minute duration without some serious fidgeting.

Basically, I love playing the horn, I love new sounds, I love the sound of the instrument, and I like the way it feels to play. It is a hugely physical experience playing the horn, and when it goes well, there’s nothing like it.

What would you like to say about your debut at the 35th Karp Family Labor Day Concert and what would you like the public to know specifically the work by Robert Schumann (below, in a photograph ca.1850) you will perform?

I played the piece last year, having not heard it before then. The orchestration is quite unusual: two solo piano parts, two cellos, and a horn. The horn provides some oomph as well as that soaring sound that no other instrument can make. It is a very approachable piece, with really fancy and fun piano parts.

I am told that the Labor Day Concert is a Madison institution, so I will enjoy having this be my first concert as a faculty member.

Was there an Aha! moment in your youth — perhaps a performer or piece, a live performance or a recording — that told you wanted to be a professional musician and a horn player?

I decided to be a horn player after my first summer at Kinhaven Music School, when I was 16. My high school classmates at home were not exactly excited by classical music, but at Kinhaven I discovered the joys of playing chamber music and orchestral music with like-minded colleagues.

I have always been fairly nerdy, and that worked fine among classical musicians. I also discovered that it was satisfying to make progress on the instrument, and I am still trying, every single day, to improve and learn new things.

Is there more you would like to say?

I am having a great time meeting people in Madison, and I am looking forward to developing musical and personal relationships with my fellow faculty members and with my students. And everything I was told about the Farmers’ Market is true!

Here is Daniel Grabois performing a contemporary work:

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music: As summer turns to fall, You Must Hear This 2: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos

August 29, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Thursday night, I had a most enjoyable experience, almost Proustian in its ability to summon up recollections and emotions from other, earlier years.

I was at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for an outstanding recital of music for two pianos by Debussy, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, Poulenc and John Harbison. The music was performed by Harvard scholar and musicologist Robert Levin and his wife Ya-fei Chuang (below). They played expressively and virtuosically, with great clarity of line, voicing and counterpoint.

Each piece was introduced by festival co-director and prize-winning composer John Harbison.

Besides being a fine composer and a pretty good instrumentalist on keyboard and viola, Harbison is master explainer. He teaches at MIT, and what I wouldn’t give to sit in on one of his classes or seminars.

Each time Harbison takes to the stage at Token Creek, (below) and explains a composer, you feel like you are on the inside of the creative process looking out rather than sitting on the outside looking on. You get a deeper understanding in two or three minutes of him than from an hour-long lecture by most others. But then it makes sense that a composer has special insight into other composers.

Such was the case as Harbison concisely explained the differences and similarities between Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc. He cut right to the core and discussed Poulenc’s boundless admiration for Stravinsky — one imagines especially for the Neo-Classical Stravinsky since Poulenc himself so often sounds like Mozart with such clarity combined with such poignancy.

But then Harbison talked about how Poulenc (below) “wanted to be understood” while Stravinsky “wanted to be heard”; and about how Poulenc alternated a Stravinsky-like objectivity or coolness with a warmth and tenderness, a deep longing and desire that you do not find in Stravinsky. (One wonders: Does it have to do with Poulenc’s homosexuality, without which, he once remarked, he could not be a composer? Could it have something to do with his devout Catholicism combined with his unabashed gayness?)

Harbison also talked about Poulenc’s genuine love of vernacular music and popular culture that Stravinsky generally avoided except for a few Russian folk songs.

It all brought to mind my favorite moments of Poulenc, who is also my favorite summer composer since so much of his music possesses a certain French lightness and transparency that I identify with bright sun and warm days. How Poulenc could combine and fuse the old with the new! And how he could create bittersweetness! How he balanced the objective and the subjective, the impersonal and the human! Poulenc seems both so French and so universal.

So here it is: YOU MUST HEAR THIS NO. 2:

It is Poulenc himself playing one of the parts in the slow movement of his fabulous Concerto for Two Pianos.

I offer as an homage to the festival concert, as thanks and as an invitation to explore more modernly Mozartean music by Poulenc, who The Ear thinks is not performed or heard nearly enough:

What do you think of this piece and of Poulenc in general?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Are young piano and string players more virtuosic today than before? Consider Yuja Wang, Kirill Gerstein, Yundi Li, Lang-Lang and others.

August 28, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Are young piano players more virtuosic today than they were before, or even just a short time ago?

It’s an old argument and observation, really.

After all, in its own time Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 was called unplayable, as was the same composer’s Violin Concerto. And similar opinions have greeted concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

Still, Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for The New York Times, thinks he and others, including piano teachers, see a trend toward a new and more easily obtained virtuosity, fueled in part by the difficulty of mastering new music and modern masters such as Ligeti, Carter and Messiaen.

Specifically he cites pianists such as Yuja Wang (below top) who is more in the headlines these days for her micro skirt controversy); Rubinstein and Gilmore competition winner Kirill Gerstein (below middle); and Chinese pianist Yundi (formerly Yundi Li), the youngest winner of the prestigious Chopin competition.

To the same list I would also add Alice Sara Ott, the German-Japanese pianist and one-time prodigy (below top) whose first album was the complete “Transcendental” Etudes of Liszt, and Valentina Lisitsa (below bottom), who just tosses off the most difficult works with apparent effortlessness. And I am sure there are others who belong on the list.

And what about Lang-Lang, whose playing I don’t particularly like but who seems to astonish audiences with his technical proficiency, if not his musicality?

But I am not so sure the new virtuosity is a new phenomenon. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw some pretty amazing keyboard virtuosos in abundance. And Chopin’s and Liszt’s era also has its share of keyboard giants.

And I also wonder if the increase in virtuosity is offset by a corresponding lack of originality and personality, by a certain homogeneity.

He also says the same thinking applies to string players but not to singers whose voices take more time to mature.

In any case, here is a link to Tommasini’s original essay or column:

Read it, put on some piano CDs and let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What other names would you add to the list?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: For sexy, how does baritone Nathan Gunn’s bare-chested and beefcake opera singing compare with Yuja Wang’s micro-skirt piano playing?

August 27, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

The enormous brouhaha over pianist Yuja Wang’s micro-skirt (below) when she played Rachmaninoff’s titanic and difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl recently continues unabated, judging by all the hits the posting received on this blog and by other follow-up stories and columns:,0,4569255.story

Wang’s critics are adamant that such revealing concert attire is or can be a distraction from the music, and that it is more a marketing and PR ploy than a genuine expression of taste and artistry.

Wang’s defenders are no less adamant is proclaiming that it is perfectly acceptable and maybe even desirable that attractive young women should be able to dress as they want in performance without being the target of outrageous and sexist criticism, especially if such attire doesn’t interfere with the performance of the music.

The Ear found himself thinking: Is there a male equivalent or comparable besides, say, Liberace’s infamous and cheesy hot pants?

The closest equivalent I could come up with is the penchant for the popular young baritone and opera star Nathan Gunn – himself a looker – to keep revealing his well-built and obviously pumped up physique, especially his chest.

Check out Nathan Gunn over the past several years in these various roles:

Here is Nathan Gunn in Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy”:

And here he is in Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Herman Melville’s homoerotic classic “Billy Budd”:

And here is again in Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”:

Has anyone or any major critic accused Nathan Gunn of Rated X or R gratuitous bad taste because of his penchant for beefcake singing and showing off his six-pack abs?

Not that I know of. Still, the possibility must be on somebody’s mind.

Here is The New York Times’ chief critic Anthony Tommasini defending Gunn and proclaiming: “And he sings well with his shirt on too!”

But is he protesting too much? as some might say. I think it is a simply news peg question, but you be the judge.

And here is another critic’s ruminations — along with a photo gallery of Gun shirted and unshirted — on Gunn’s bare and beautiful chest:

What do you think?

Is there any applicable comparison to be made between baritone Nathan Gunn’s shirtless singing and Yuja Wang’s leggy piano playing?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music education: University of Wisconsin’s Continuing Education offers tempting music courses for seniors by actual “doers” and performers. Some are for FREE, others cost a very reasonable fee.

August 26, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the summer again.

Not only do students start thinking about and planning their return to school by the end of this month or the beginning of next month. More and more, schools are also reaching out to non-traditional students and to people who want to take course on-line.

In Wisconsin, residents over 60 can attend courses and lectures for free, with the instructors’ permission, once they fill out a form and “enroll.” That kind of public mission is integral to the Wisconsin Idea that the taxpayers who pay for the university should benefit from the university.

For more information, call 608 262-1156 or visit:

But through the UW Division of Continuing Studies, you can also see many more courses that are available often for nominal fees.

There are also many short courses that retired persons and other adults can take even if they do not lead to a degree.

You can get a catalogue by mail (below) and you can visit the website and see course offerings on line along with instructions about how to enroll:

And look at the course catalog here by clicking under ARTS:

This year especially, I am particularly impressed with the number of “doers” – of actual performers – who are giving those courses. It underscores how very wrong is the old saying about “Those who can do, do; those who can’t, teach.”

I offer some example:

Baroque violinist and performer Edith Hines (below), who performed in both the Madison Early Music Festival and the Boston Early Music Festival, is offering an “Early Music Collegium Musicum” from Sept. 13 to Nov. 8.

Steve Kurr (below top), conductor of the Middleton Community Orchestra (below bottom), is offering a Great Composers Series on Bernstein, Handel, Mahler and Paganini from Sept. 12 to Nov. 7 at Middleton High School.

Composer, singer,  early music performer and new music (NEW MUSE) performer Chiwei (Jerry) Hui (below top and below bottom, back row left, with the early music group Eliza’s Toyes) is offering a course on Gregorian Chant form Sept. 10 to Oct. 29.

And retired Medieval history professor, early music expert and Isthmus music critic John W. Barker (below) — who also writes for this blog — will teach a course on “Music in the Renaissance; Challenging Cultural Stereotypes” from Oct. 4 to Oct 25.

Plus you can find piano lessons, string lessons, choral and voice lessons as well as courses in music theory and even piano tuning. You can also find non-classical music courses and much, much more.

Trust me, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

If you have taken such courses, let us know what you think of them?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music Q&A: Harvard scholar Robert Levin talks about playing two-piano works, completing Mozart compositions and performing chamber arrangements of Mozart’s piano concertos.

August 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the regular performers at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has been Harvard professor Robert Levin. Levin (below) has finished incomplete Mozart works, including the Requiem; he improvises cadenzas to concertos by Mozart and Beethoven; he often performs with his pianist-wife Ya-Fei Chuang; and he has recorded Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on the modern piano and the period fortepiano for major labels.

For more about his accomplishments, visit YouTube and Wikipedia:

For this summer’s festival, Levin and his wife (below) will perform a program of music for two pianos, including Debussy’ s “En blanc et noir,” Poulenc’s Sonata, Witold Lutoslawki’s “Paganini” Variations, John Harbison’s “Diamond Watch” and Stravinsky’s Sonata (which was premiered in Madison with the composer and famed teacher Nadia Boulanger with whom Levin studied).

The last performance is TONIGHT at 8 p.m. and tickets are still available.Visit the festival’s site for more information about the program, ticket availability and directions:

Then on Saturday at 8 p.m. (tickets available) and Sunday at 4 p.m. (sold-out), Levin will perform in two Mozart works, including a chamber arrangement of the “Coronation” Piano Concerto and his reconstruction of piano trio. (A Divertimento for violin and strings is also on the program.)

Levin (below left, with festival co-director John Harbison at last summer’s festival) graciously took time out from his busy schedule to provide The Ear with an e-mail Q&A:

What do you want to say about the music for two pianos you will play with your wife?

This is a program we played at MIT a year ago April. We find these works complement and contrast one another very well, and of course the Stravinsky has a Madison connection, having been premiered at Edgewood College in 1944.

What are the challenges of composing for two pianos and then playing works written for two pianos?

The medium is more flexible and freewheeling than piano four-hands, as collisions and limitations of register (one player for each half of the keyboard, more or less) are not problems in the two-piano repertoire.  Hence two-piano works tend to be more flamboyant.  The Stravinsky is an exception in this regard, being for the most part quite melodious and conversational.

You will perform a chamber version of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto, one of several Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos you have done in this before at Token Creek (below, Levin playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto last summer)  And recently I heard a reduction of a late Haydn symphony by Salomon. How common were such reductions, why were they done and how good are they in general?

The primary purpose was commercial—allowing performances in domestic and less formal music-making venues.

Unlike the Haydn symphonies, Mozart’s string versions of the piano concertos do not involve transcription:  the wind (and brass and timpani) parts are written ad libitum, meaning that they add color but are not essential, whereas in the late piano concertos the wind parts have considerable soloistic responsibilities, which are one of the glories of those pieces.

You will perform a Mozart Piano Trio that you have reconstructed and finished. As someone who is renowned internationally for his Mozart reconstructions that are also performing editions (the Requiem and a Mass), and who is known for his Mozart performances with improvised cadenzas, are there certain guiding principles, rules, assumptions or methods that you use when you “channel” Mozart?

There certainly are.  One has to have studied Mozart’s structure, rhetoric, harmonic progressions, character portrayal, etc., in great detail so as to make it as difficult as possible for the listener to be aware of the moment in which Mozart ceased to notate the individual movement.  (In fact it is rare that all parts break off at the same time; there are gaps here and there before the last instrument breaks off.)

Are there misconceptions about Mozart (Mozart) or his music on the part of the public that you would like to see corrected?

This is too large a subject to get into here. The primary problem is to see Mozart as pretty, elegant, tasteful, and thus devoid of passion, strong emotions, risk, and volatility.  I have spent much of my life as a performer combating this view.

Will this be the world premiere of the Mozart reconstruction? Do you have plans to perform it elsewhere and eventually to publish and record it?

The D-minor movement was premiered at the Sarasota Music Festival last June.  The D-major movement was given a first performance in a private reading honoring its dedicatee, the Bach scholar Professor Christoph Wolff.  I have prepared a third completion of a finale in G major and we will perform that at Token Creek.  Eventually the pieces will be published, but there are no present publication or recording plans.

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music Q&A: Composer John Harbison talks about public misperceptions of Mozart and modern musicians losing Bach

August 24, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is the second of my two-part interview with John Harbison (below) about the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which begins tonight at 8 p.m. with husband-and-wife pianists Robert levin and Ya-Fei Chuang  in a concert of music for two pianos by Debussy, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and Harbison. The festival runs through Sunday, Sept. 4, and includes an all-Mozart program, a jazz cabaret and an all-J.S. Bach program. including the cantata “Mein Herz Swimmt im Blut” (at bottom).

The first part, with all the scheduled events, was posted yesterday.

For more information about concert dates, performers, programs, tickets availability, direction and photos, visit:

ON MOZART: “The Mozart program is the completion of the cycle of piano concertos he wrote and arranged for small chamber groups. The only one we haven’t done is the next to last concerto, the “Coronation” Concerto (K. 537) and we want to complete that cycle with Bob Levin as soloist (below left, with John Harbison).

“We’ve also been interested in Bob Levin’s completions of Mozart (below). This piano trio (K. 442) is actually made of three movement not originally meant to go together. I wasn’t aware of this, but Bob Levin informed me that one of three pieces Mozart worked on is incomplete. That’s a pretty high percentage.

“Also, for a number of years we’ve wanted to perform an early Divertimento No. 2 in B-flat major (K. 278)  that Mozart essentially wrote for his own retirement announcement as a violinist. He was a great violin player as a young guy, and these are really great pieces that are show pieces for the violin. Mozart played them, then stepped back into the viola chair. He was very pleased with the way he played them. I think these are extraordinary and rewarding works, which compare favorably to the Viola Quintets. After he played them, Mozart tipped his hat and went off to write string quartets. It’s like his farewell to his solo violin career so he could pursue his composing career and his piano career. It’s an appealing program that picks up and completes some strands of the festival and involves a world premiere of the trio.

“The public misperception about Mozart that I’d like to correct is the one that has always been around: That he goes down easy and is always breezy and delightful. The first perception after he died was that he was a tough and difficult composer. We’ve lost that sense of Mozart as being a composer of infinite variety for his time, this his work is something that always something that needs to be fresh. He was a turning point in the history of music. Mozart picked up on things in Haydn no one else picked up on. Plus, his music is so hard to perform. There is no room to hide.”

ON BACH: “We’ve lost Bach  (below) at the big symphony orchestras. I talk to instrumentalists from them when I direct a Bach cantata every summer at the Tanglewood Festival and they all same they same thing: “We’ve lost Bach.” In a way, it’s good-bye to Bach in the current scheme of things. It’s an inadvertent but genuine result of the original performance movement. There are a lot of professional players and audiences who don’t get to play or hear this great music. The story is the same with Hadyn. There’s going to come a time when the larger institutions really have to rethink this. It’s across the board. It’s not only instrumentalists but also singers who are being tracked away. They are considered not eligible for Bach and Mozart.”

“You want to try to give some hint of the variety of Bach’s work and how richly engaged with the world his pieces are. We try to touch on a lot of different areas in which he wrote. It’s a very long career, and we cover the early, middle and late period pieces. So our program is an overview. Some of us at Emmanuel Music of Boston (below, in a Token Creek performance of a cantata last year) are working as proselytizers of Bach. Some 25 or 30 years ago, his motets were still sung in high schools. Now we find over and over that we are bringing Bach’s music into situations where it is new.”

“What’s so appealing about it is that it is all on such a high level. That is the idea behind the program. We want listeners to get a sense of the variety and the quality of his music.  Even if Bach writes a very popular piece like the “Coffee” Cantata, he has all gates open and never takes a day off. I can’t think of any other composer who is as totally on all the time. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s all top-drawer. With Bach, there really isn’t a second drawer. Even in that huge body of work of his, there is no second gear.”

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music Q&A: Composer John Harbison talks about the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for 2011, which opens this Wednesday night. Part 1 of 2.

August 23, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

American composer John Harbison (below, in a photo by Tom Artin) has won just about every honor a composer can win, including the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” His resume and future schedule are filled with commissions by major organizations from the Metropolitan Opera to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and numerous other smaller ensembles here abroad.

But every summer for more than 20 years, Harbison leaves his home in Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at MIT, and returns to a rural farmhouse and barn near Madison, Wisconsin. There, with his wife violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below), he composes and co-directs and performs in the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which begins this week.

This festival is one of the most intriguing and incisive classical music events nationwide. I suspect that, on a smaller scale, it uses the kind of didactic or exploratory focus that has made the Bard College summer festivals, devoted to a single, often underrated composer, so well revered. That is, Token Creek usually has a major point or two to make about the composer and music, even as it offers outstanding performances of that outstanding music.

This year’s festival is no exception, and it is dedicated to the recently deceased master violin maker and retired UW-Madison physics professor Jack Fry (below, with a link to his obituary) – who made several of the string instruments that will be used during the festival.

The festival begins tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 24, and ends Sunday, Sept. 4, with all concerts held in the beautifully refurbished barn (below) in DeForest.

In between will come two performances (Wednesday and Thursday nights, Aug. 24 and 25, at 8 p.m.) by Robert Levin and his wife Ya-Fei Chuang (below) of music for two pianos, including Debussy’s “En blanc et noir,” Poulenc’s Sonata, Witold Lutoslawski’s “Paganini” Variations,” the Midwest premiere of Harbison’s “Diamond Watch” and the Sonata by Stravinsky that was given its world premiere, with the composer and famed teacher Nadia Boulanger at the keyboards, at Edgewood College in Madison.

That will be followed by two performances (Saturday night, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon. Aug. 28, at 4 p.m.) of an exploration of Mozart that includes a chamber version of the “Coronation” Piano Concerto; a little heard Divertimento for violin and strings; and a reconstruction of an unfinished piano trio by Harvard scholar and performer Robert Levin.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, and Thursday, Sept. 1, there will also be four seatings (5 and 8:30 p.m. each night) of the ever-popular jazz cabaret, which this years marks the centennials of Burton Lane and Jule Styne. Longtime jazz fan Harbison will play with others, including his longtime friend, trombonist Tom Artin (below), whose performing with Harbison dates back to the childhood some 60 years ago.

And the festival will wrap up with two performances (Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.) of an all-J.S. Bach program that features the return of musicians and Bach specialists – including soprano Kendra Colton and oboist Peggy Pearson — from the acclaimed Emmanuel Music of Boston ensemble in vocal and instrumental music, including the famous Cantata No. 199 (“My Heart Swims in Blood”).

For more information about all the concerts, dates and times, programs, tickets availability, direction and photos, visit:

Harbison, who points to complete sequences or series of works that were started in previous years, recently gave an interview, conducted by telephone and then transcribed and edited for print, to The Ear. It will be posted in two parts over two days:

ON THE FESTIVAL OVERALL: “I think this really will be a fine festival. We’re looking forward it a lot. We’re selling tickets pretty well, and, as usual, we have a group of people we’ve had with us before and also some very close colleagues who will be here for the first time.

“For us, it’s a pleasure to be putting on this music but also to get together with people we love to perform with. I gave my first concert with Tom Artin, the jazz trombone player, when I was 11 years old in Princeton, New Jersey.

“These days all arts organizations have to be aware that it’s not so easy to put these things together. We would love to drop our prices and have everybody be able to afford it. Beethoven said that there should e a store where everybody van just go and take what they want.

“I think we’re very glad to be able to keep it going at this point and to see many people who come back each year. That’s always very heartening. We learn about the music as we do it. So much of what I get up on stage and say about the music has been worked out among us as we are preparing the music. That’s the kick for us of doing this.”

ON MUSIC FOR TWO PIANOS:  Bob Levin and his wife Ya-Fei Chuang (below) will repeat a performance of a concert a year ago of theme-and-variations for two pianos. They include Harbison’s own work “Diamond Watch” that he wrote for a Nobel Prize-winning economist and colleague at MIT, and which was written to be performed by Levin and his wife.

Says Harbison: “The challenge of writing for two pianos is that paradoxically it is a very good kind of piece if don’t want to depend on an instrument. If you are sitting there by yourself at one piano, you can’t hear it So I wrote the piece almost entirely away from an instrument, You just have to imagine the sound of two pianos without producing it.

“The uses of theme-and-variations are the central problem of playing jazz and improvisations, and were central to composers of Bach’s time. The idea is that the central kernel or idea has very widespread set of applications. It’s also how people are built and think. Just of these are stricter rather than more fluid forms of variations.

“The program turns out to have a French angle, which is good since Bob Levin studied in France with Nadia Boulanger (below).  The world premiere took place at Edgewood College with the pianists being Boulanger and a guy named Stravinsky as the pianist. Stravinsky’s Elegy for Viola was also given a world premiere by Pro Arte Quartet violist Germain Prevost. It was a big event for Madison.”

Tomorrow: Part 2 – John Harbison on Mozart and Bach

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: J.S. Bach’s six cello suites get a fine reading as a cycle from Benjamin Whitcomb

August 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below), who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and who performs with the Ancora String Quartet as well as with other ensembles, is a talented man on a mission. (Check out his website:

To raise money for the music scholarship fund at UW-Whitewater, Whitcomb is giving 10 performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous cello suites. So far he has lined up eight dates, the most recent one (Number 4) being last Friday night at the First Unitarian Society’s stylishly modern Atrium auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams).

The boyish Whitcomb has played each of the six suites as a solo work on a recital program. But for this event, he performed all six suites as a cycle. Before intermission came suites 1-4; after intermission, suites 5 and 6. As an enthusiastic and concise, accessible and friendly explainer, a relaxed Whitcomb (below) helped the audience to understand the various keys, dance forms, tempi, technical matters, similarities and contrasts of the six suites. He wisely interspersed his comments between suites, not between movements.

To make the complete cycle do-able and enjoyable as a single evening of about two hours, he also cut out all repeats. Now, that may be anathema to period-instrument and historic-practice fans. But it is hard to imagine the toll that taking all the repeats – and therefore doubling of the time — would place both on listeners and on the performer otherwise.

Besides, to my ears, it was refreshing to ear the suites without repeats, which is how the most Bachian Glenn Gould recorded his famous readings of the partitas and suites for keyboard (piano in his case). I found that leaving out the repeats did two things I very much liked.

It forced you to be attentive and focused, so you didn’t miss anything the first time through, thinking you could always catch it when it comes round next. And, even more important, it eliminated some of the frequently overdone and distracting ornamentation (pianist Andras Schiff comes to mind) that accompanies baroque repeats, allowing more of a singing line to emerge.

That isn’t to say I would always prefer to hear the suites without repeats. But it is a ear-opening and welcome change to do so.

Besides, Whitcomb’s approach seems to have benefited from the early music movement. His tempi were very upbeat, his vibrato very restrained and his sense of voice leading well developed. Fans of the Baroque would be satisfied with the Whitcomb’s energetic approach was as non-Romantic and it was non-period.

The suites are not only among Bach’s most famous works; they are also by far the most popular works ever written for the cello. The most amazing part of their history is how, composed in the 1720s, they languished undiscovered and unknown for two centuries until the early 20th century when Spanish cellist Pablo Casals accidentally – and miraculously — discovered them on a used bookstore. Even then, many experts and cellists took them to be technical exercises rather than genuine compositions. And you can sort of understand why, when you look at the tightly packed manuscript score (below), which looks a lot like Hanon and Czerny among others.

How wrong that view is quickly became apparent as Whitcomb, boyish and dressed in black, worked his way through the preludes, allemandes, courantes, gavottes, minuets, gigues and other movements, 36 in all. There is abundant beauty and contrast, drama and pathos, in these works. Not for nothing did famed metaphysical movie director Ingmar Bergman use the dark and doleful Suite No. 2 in D Minor as a soundtrack to “Though a Glass Darkly.”

Except for the fifth suite, which uses an awkwardly restrung and retuned cello, Whitcomb played from memory. That’s a lot of notes to keep in your mind and fingers. But he faltered or had only minor memory lapses a couple of times, always recovering convincingly and then proceeding on. His tone was rich but transparent, not inappropriately Russian thick, and his readings and accents made inevitable sense.

The crisply contemporary architecture and acoustics of the hall proved an ideal place for the performance. Whitcomb hardly seemed isolated, even though he was alone on the stage. The hall’s wood and other hard surfaces provided a resonance that enhanced the cello’s volume. And even the lines of the austere Nordic design (below) seemed to match the intersecting lines and counterpoint of the music being played.

One small disappointment was the relatively small, though extremely attentive and enthusiastic, audience of 50 or so (below). Perhaps Whitcomb could perform the cycle again (Number 9 or 10?) in the same venue during the fall or winter, when a larger crowd would be available and by which time word would get around.

Both the music and the performance certainly merit a wider hearing.

Posted in Classical music
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