The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Madison Savoyards’ FREE performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Zoo” this afternoon at the Henry Vilas Zoo is a end-of-summer must-see.

August 21, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. 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

The 50-year dedication of the Madison Savoyards to the 13 surviving operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan has extended also to the two short one-act farces that Sullivan wrote with other librettists, before his collaboration with Gilbert got fully under way. The one in question Savoyards gave once before in August 1980.

“The Zoo” (1875) was written in collaboration with one “Bolton Rowe,” the pen-name of B. C. Stephenson, one of the numerous hacks of the London theater.  His words cannot match the wit or inspiring impetus of Gilbert, but they are actually quite serviceable, while the jolly score by Sullivan (below) reveals his early accomplishment in theatrical writing.

Never mind the silly plot of “The Zoo.”  It is full of clichés — disguised identities, class consciousness, virtue triumphing over silly mistakes.  It is actually quite amusing, especially when it can be brought to spirited life by the clever direction of Terry Kiss Frank (below). This is a “staged reading”, with discreet costumes and a reasonable amount of action from the soloists, while the chorus sings from scores, all to David Sytkowski’s piano accompaniment.

While the chorus includes a lot of Savoyards veterans (below, in this summer’s production of “Utopia Limited), all five of the lead singers are bright younger and newer members of the troupe — with the exception of long-time John Hyland, bask as a sneering villain, Mr. Grinder. As the amorous but suicidal apothecary, Aesculapius Carboy, Josh Sanders displays a clear high tenor range and dramatic nuance.  Baritone Justin Wilder as Thomas Browne (really a peer in disguise, you know), shows real promise as an actor as well as singer. As his beloved, Eliza Smith, Molly Spivey is mellow-voiced and endearing. As Carboy’s beloved, Laetitia Grinder, Caitlin Miller musters a real powerhouse of a mezzo voice.

About to celebrate its own 50th anniversary, the Savoyards has joined forces with the Henry Vilas Zoo, to take part in its centennial celebration — with Terry’s husband Boris Frank representing the zoo itself.

Ideas about presenting the performances amid the appropriate zoo displays themselves proved impractical. Instead, the venue in the hall of the zoo’s Visitor Center turns out to be ideal. The room is modest enough so the audience is close to the performers, whose honed diction brings out the words with consistent clarity.

I attended the Saturday afternoon free performance at 3 p.m., and there was an overflow audience during a very busy day at the zoo in general. Another performance Saturday evening (with a $10 admission charge) will be followed by another free afternoon one today, Sunday, Aug. 21, at 3 p.m.

It is one of those little publicized summer events that is really very much worth catching.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: The Ear gets more than an earful of Franz Liszt and Valentina Lisitsa, and thinks of Liberace.

August 20, 2011


By Jacob Stockinger

I came away from the mammoth piano recital given by Valentina Lisitsa – the so-called “Mystery Pianist” — on Wednesday night at Farley’s House of Pianos with two convictions:

1. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa (below) deserves a much bigger solo career than she currently enjoys.

2. It is possible to hear much too much of piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt, whose birth bicentennial is being celebrated this year. (Oct. 22 is the official date.) But because of the bicentennial, that is exactly what we are going to hear in live concerts and in recordings.

Lisitsa, who had just returned from dates in Brazil and who was on her way to perform the same “Liszt to Lisitsa” program at Chicago’s summer Ravinia Festival the following night, played for almost three hours without breaking a sweating.

The woman has chops to spare along with incredible strength and stamina. I doubt there is any configuration of notes that she can’t play, and play convincingly and very hard for a very long time.

Blessed with astounding technique, she tends toward the bangy repertoire and show-off stuff as well as towards a bangy or pounding approach that puts her squarely in the same Romantic tradition as Liszt himself and even Vladimir Horowitz in his wilder moments. Not for nothing did she throw in Leopold Godowsky’s totally trashy “Symphonic Metamorphoses on ‘Die Fledermaus,” which has no musical value I can discern.

In short, Valentina Lisitsa can twirl a concert grand on her pinkie, so we should be hearing much more of her as a soloist.

That said, I found this particular concert of hers more impressive than satisfying on several levels.

It boils down to wanting more subtlety in both the music and the performance.

When Lisitsa performed Mozart’s “Fantasy in C Minor,” K. 475, she used silence and pauses to create an operatic drama very effectively. Part of the seven Chopin Nocturnes were also beautifully phrased and sung; but every once in a while, when the notes got thicker, she got more Liszt-like in her Chopin, more loud and flashy, more erratic in tempi.

The same was true of an overall lovely reading of Schubert’s theme-and-variations Impromptu in B-flat, Op. 142, No. 3. One wants to hear more softness and subtlety, of which is clearly capable and which Liszt did indeed write into some of his best music.

With the concluding solo piano version of Liszt’s “Todentanz” (The Dance of Death) we were back to the wow’em kind of Liszt – and Lisista really did wow the sold-out audience into a standing ovation.

But for me, the most revealing moments – positive and negative — came in Liszt’s transcriptions of songs by Schubert (below).

I know others disagree, but I don’t consider Liszt such a great composer. He is a very good one, to be sure. But too much of what he writes is glitz and schmaltz to camouflage up a relative poverty of content.

Those songs represent the best of Liszt – the deeper Liszt who championed contemporary composers including Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner. (His later work and harmonies also represent Liszt as a pre-modernistic pioneer.)

But the song transcriptions also highlight the worst of Liszt, his tendency to overscore works for the piano, on which he was such a devilish acrobat and transcendental technical magician. Each repeat of a song stanza seem to bring forth another trick from his bag full of tricks: This time double octaves, another time double-thirds, another time sweeping glissandi and arpeggios. It was like highbrow Liberace. After a while, you see all the tricks in the bag and repeating them gets just plain predictable, boring and off-putting.

It was enough to give you a headache. I’ll take Chopin’s B Minor Sonata over Liszt’s B Minor Sonata 100 times out of 100 times.

Lisitsa was also rude to the audience by adding four unprogrammed and unfamiliar pieces of Liszt – “I love Liszt … I’m going to torture you with Liszt,” she tellingly said – and then not announcing their titles. (Best I can tell, they included the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, the Ballade No. 2 in B Minor and an arrangement of “Ave Maria.”)

But in a way, not announcing the titles was just the right touch.

Because a lot of Liszt does indeed sound the same, especially when played as she did, and you really don’t need to know more except that you about to be dazzled by finger-twisting virtuosity and an occasional catchy tune.

True, Liszt (below) composed many much more subtle pieces that Lisitsa might have programmed for variety — his lovely Petrarch sonnets, the Consolations, other works from the “Years of Pilgrimage.” I also like his Piano Concerto No. 2, some of his late piano works and some of his orchestral tone poems.

But overall, Liszt wrote too many notes and too little music.

How I would like to hear Lisitsa play a more meaningful, more nuanced solo repertoire! I have heard her live and in a new recording accompanying Hilary Hahn in Charles Ives’ violin sonatas. She was and is stupendous, even deeply musical. But I think she needs more of that same kind of music to play – and a better and wiser booking agent to set up the right dates and the right programs. Wednesday night saw some beautiful moments of fine playing by her. I just wanted to hear more of that from Lisitsa.

Of course, other will disagree and have. See, for example, this review from her Chicago appearance with the same program:

In the mean time I will confess: I wish I could play Liszt like Lisitsa does.

Except that then I wouldn’t play Liszt, but instead the harder works of better composers.

I don’t want to play Liszt. I just want be able to play like Liszt.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: The Well-Tempered Ear is about to turn two! And iClassics is launched for iPads.

August 19, 2011
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This Saturday is the second anniversary of the launching of The Well-Tempered Ear. A really welcome birthday gift would be to see subscriptions go well over 250. (There are at 246 as of this writing.) Can you help? Do you know of someone, a family member or friend, who can? Most of all, thank you for the loyal and constantly building and expanding following this blog has developed.

By Jacob Stockinger

Got an iPad?

You might want to use iClassics (below) – a new venture from Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics.

Here is the official press release:

August 15, 2011 – (New York, NY) — iClassics is a new classical music discovery application developed exclusively for Apple’s iPad.  Created by Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics U.S. in partnership with L4 Mobile, the app allows consumers to explore the recordings from these labels’ vast and prestigious catalogues in a new and interactive way.

Deutsche Grammophon and Decca labels are home to such lauded artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Cecilia Bartoli, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Leonard Bernstein, Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming and many more.

Utilizing a unique tagging interface, iClassics offers the ability to search, mix and match composers, instruments and even moods, successfully catering to classical music beginners and established fans alike. iClassics also includes an interactive composer timeline featuring over 100 composers ranging from the Medieval time period through the present. 

In addition, users have the ability to share their classical music discoveries with friends on Facebook and Twitter. Free updates will include new recordings along with new features as they roll out.

iClassics is FREE to download and can be accessed with the following link:

iClassics includes the following features:

* Interactive Tagging Interface

* Free Streaming Deutsche Grammophon & Decca Classics Radio

* Streaming Audio Samples

* Integration directly with the iTunes Music Store™

* Facebook ™ integration

* Twitter ™ Integration

*Apple AirPlay ™ Enabled

Classical music is an incredibly rich experience, but the sheer variety of composers, performers and interpretations can be daunting for some,” said Max Hole, Chief Operating Officer, Universal Music Group International, who is responsible for UMG’s market-leading classical music labels worldwide.  “This new, exciting iClassics app simplifies this complex world and guides music lovers to the finest recordings of the masterpieces performed by the world’s top performers in an enjoyable, user-friendly way. Our goal is to help more people discover this extraordinary world.”

Here are other links:

Will it work with similar devices?

Or will other classical music applications pop up?

Let me and Apple and DG know what you think.

And how well it works, if you have used it?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Madison Savoyards offer FREE staged readings of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Zoo” this weekend to help the Henry Vilas Zoo mark 100 years. Also, here is the Savoyards’ schedule for 2012 and 2013 Gilbert and Sullivan shows

August 18, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Henry Vilas Zoo (below) is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The Madison Savoyards – long-time summer purveyors of Gilbert and Sullivan in the area – will contribute to the festivities.

The Madison Savoyards (below top, in a photo of this production of summer’s “Utopia, Limited”) will do staged reading of The Zoo,” a one-act comic opera by Sir Arthur Sullivan (below, without Gilbert) at the Henry Vilas Zoo’s Visitors’ Center in Madison on Saturday and Sunday, August 20 and 21, 2011, at 3 p.m. The afternoon performances are free.

There is also a performance at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 20, for which a $10 ticket will be required and can be reserved can be reserved by calling the Friends of the Zoo at 258-9490 or contacting  (there is a link on their website to all of the centennial events –  The Savoyards will be holding their annual meeting between the two shows on Saturday.

As one of the story lines has to do with a frustrated suicide attempt – frustrated because the bears have been moved from the Bear Pit (below) – and as the Vilas Zoo bears have been moved due to the new Northwest Passage exhibit, we were hoping to actually do the work outside and utilize the old bear habitat.  For various reasons that was not feasible, but it’s still a fun “coincidence.”

Several of the cast members are “veteran Savoyards” and several are current and a few are new on this project. Peggy and Greg Walters sang principal roles in the production in 1980, directed by Michael Goldberg and David Crosby out at Oakwood Theatre.

Here is the official synopsis of “The Zoo”: It was first performed in London at St. James’ Hall on June 5, 1875. David Sytkowski, is the music director and accompanist; Terry Kiss Frank (below) is in charge of the staging, production and cueing:

“The Ladies and Gentlemen of the British Public are enjoying an outing to the London Zoological Gardens when they notice a young man, Aesculapius Carboy, attempting to do away with himself.  He explains that the father of Laetitia Grinder, the woman he loves, rejected his suit because he is a mere apothecary (pharmacist).  The lovers had arranged to communicate through prescriptions, but, according to a note from Laetitia’s sister, there was a mix-up in the most recent delivery.  A peppermint dose meant for his beloved was instead delivered to her father, and an external lotion, meant to raise blisters, was instead taken by Laetitia, Carboy can only assume with fatal results. Hence, his loss of interest in life. 

As Eliza Smith, in charge of the refreshment stall, orders him to desist, who should appear but her beloved Thomas Brown; he suspects Carboy of being a rival, but Eliza reassures him and proceeds to ply him with goodies. Laetitia arrives in a fear that she is too late to save her intended; it seems the note from her sister was a joke.  Carboy is convinced she is not a ghost and they sing a rapturous duet.  Thomas’ overindulgence leads to his dramatic collapse; the crowd gathers ‘round offering various opinions and advice while Carboy examines the prostrate gentleman.  He sends Eliza off for a prescription and then discovers the Order of the Garter beneath Thomas’ vest.  It seems he is a peer in disguise.  When Thomas recovers consciousness he admits the truth and explains he has been incognito as he searches for true love and virtue . . . embodied by Eliza.  Urged on by the group, he leaves to change into ducal attire.

Mr. Grinder appears in search of his daughter and Carboy; though everyone tries to appeal to his finer feelings they are stymied, and the hapless Aesculapius once more resolves on death.  Amid a touching farewell, he lowers himself into the Bear Pit.

Thomas returns and reveals his true identity – the Duke of Islington – to Eliza, asking her to marry him.  She is reluctant to leave the beasts she loves, concerned that they will not be properly nourished without the offerings from her cart.  Her husband-to-be reassures her, explaining that he has purchased all of the animals and that they will make their home with them.  Everyone’s attention is then drawn back to the Bear Pit as Carboy reemerges.  The Zoo’s patrons are annoyed at his continuously arousing their sympathy and then not dying.  He explains that the bears have been moved to a new exhibit, and that he will instead “try the lion’s den.”  The Duke, touched by his devotion, makes a financial arrangement with Grinder in return for his permission for Laetitia and Aesculapius to be wed; in addition, he offers them an income of their own.  All rejoice in anticipation of a life of joy and wealth.”

In related news, The Savoyards have announced the Gilbert and Sullivan works they will do in future years:

Mark your Calendar:

Midwinter Concert: February 10, 2012 at First Unitarian Society

July 2012: “The Pirates of Penzance

July 2013: “Iolanthe”

For more information, visit:

and also:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: Was Yuja Wang’s concert skirt too short? What is inappropriate concert attire for a performer, male or female?

August 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This isn’t the first time the Internet has been abuzz about the young, 24-year-old Beijing-born piano virtuoso and former prodigy Yuja Wang (below), who trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

The deeply talented and award-winning Wang, whose repertoire runs from Scarlatti to Ligeti (check her out on YouTube)  is especially renowned for her astounding technique, which helped her garner a Grammy nomination with her first Deutsche Grammophon  CD, “Sonatas and Etudes” and which also played a big role on her second CD, “Transformations” (which featured Stravinsky’s “Petroushka” and Brahms’ finger-twisting “Paganini” Variations) and her third CD with two Rachmaninoff concertos.

Wang also has performing nerves of steel and  has developed a solid reputation as the go-to person for last-minute fill-in appearances when another pianist has to cancel because of illness. Invariably she draws rave reviews. And when you listen to her playing, you can understand why. It is clear and self-assured, both accurate and musical.

But now the glamorous and attractive, photogenic and charismatic performer is in the headlines for another reason.

She recent wore a very short reddish-orange micro-skirt when performing Rachmaninoff’s killer Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (below).

Did it add to her allure or appeal?

Did it distract from the music and her performance? And if it did, whose fault is that?

You can make up your own mind.

Here are some columns about it — and be sure to read the comments they drew from readers:

And here is an interesting and well reason, balanced response by publicist and artists’ agent Amanda Ameer about the controversy:

One thing is for sure: The resulting publicity can’t hurt Yuja Wang’s career in the highly competitive world of classical music or her number of bookings, except perhaps in the Mideast and Utah.

Of course The Ear also wonder if a man could get away with something similar – say, like Liberace wearing hot pants. How tasteful that was!

And is there a sexist double-standard at work in concert fashion as well as in writing about fashion in the political and social spheres?

I remember that pianist Olga Kern drew comments about her red backless dress when she performed in Madison. But I can’t remember the last time someone commented on a male performer’s dress?

What do you think about Yuja Wang and her controversial dress?

Send in your vote.

Does a sexist double standard exist when it comes to men’s attire during a performance?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music Q&A: What makes J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites masterpieces? Ask Benjamin Whitcomb,who performs all six of them Friday night for FREE

August 16, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

What better way is there to wind down the summer and prepare for the fall concert season than to hear a whole cycle of masterpieces?

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m., in the crisply beautiful Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb will perform all six of J.S. Bach’s solo Cello Suites, musical masterpieces that were discovered at the turn of the 20th-century in a used bookstore by Pablo Casals and first thought by many to be merely technique exercises.

Admission is FREE, although donations will be accepted for the UW-Whitewater Music Scholarship Fund.

Benjamin Whitcomb (below), cellist and music theorist, has earned a national reputation as a highly skilled performer and teacher of music. An active recitalist and chamber musician, he performs more than 20 concerts a year.

He appears regularly on the “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” concert series broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio. He collaborates with pianist Vincent de Vries in frequent recitals around the country, and he is a member of the Ancora String Quartet and the UW-Whitewater Piano Trio.

He has produced several CDs of his recordings, including his 2007 release of solo cello works by Bach and Gabrieli on the MSR Classics label.  

Whitcomb (below) is Associate Professor of Cello and Music Theory at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater, where he initiated and continues to coordinate the Theory/History Colloquium speaker series, the Musical Mosaics Faculty Concert Series, and the UW-Whitewater String Chamber Music Camp.

He recently granted an e-mail Q&A to The Ear:

When did you first started learning the Cello Suites?

Like many cellists, I started learning the first three suites back in junior high and high school. I learned suites 4 and 5 as an undergraduate, and suite 6 while working on my doctoral degree.

I have performed them each many times, but I have only performed them as a cycle once before, back in early 2002 (this coming January will mark the 10th anniversary of that performance).

At that time, I performed them as a series in three concerts of two suites each and with all repeats. This time, I will be playing them all one sitting (albeit with a short intermission) and without repeats. It takes right around 90 minutes for me to perform them, including some time for talking about them to the audience.

This time around, I decided I want to play the cycle at least 10 times and for at least 1,000 people. (I just chose those because they are round numbers, not because it’s the 10th anniversary of my having performed the suites!)

My performance at FUS will be number four.

How hard are the cello suites to play technically and musically?

From a technical standpoint, suites one through five are difficult in the same way that Mozart is difficult—they must be “just so”; there is nowhere to hide! The bow arm has to manage the bow distribution and the string crossings very well to deliver an effective performance. The sixth suite is in a category of its own: since it was written for a five-string instrument and the cello has only four, it is just plain hard.

There is also the technical difficulty of performing unaccompanied works in general. On the one hand, you don’t have anyone else to have to cue or follow, but on the other hand, there’s also nowhere to hide! Also, since you are playing constantly, unaccompanied pieces can be fairly taxing.

From a musical standpoint, these pieces are like many masterpieces in that there is no limit to the amount of thought, effort, and attention you can put into performing them as well as possible. They are bottomless wells in this respect.

For example, these suites are full of compound melodies — multiple melodic lines being implied by one voice. You know, as a performer, that you need to voice them and differentiate them (i.e., bring out the hidden stepwise motion), but how much? Similarly, once you figure out all of the locations where you intend to breathe between phrases, again the question is how much?

You don’t want to do them the same every time, and you want decisions such as these to contribute to the aural impression that the movement is organic and that it has a life and integrity to it.

Do you have favorites suites and movements?

It sounds cheesy, but to a certain extent the movement I am playing at the time is my favorite. My teachers, especially Evan Tonsing, instilled in me the need for each movement to have its own, distinct character. Whether the audience agrees with my character choices or not, I know I have given them each their own personality, and I really do look forward to bringing out these roles every time I start a movement.

Having said that, suites 5 and 6 tie for being the best of the best. Out of the individual movements, there too I would have to say it is a tie, between the Allemande of suite 5 and the Courante of suite 6.

What do the cello suite they mean to you personally?

I don’t have any special attachment to them beyond their status as masterpieces and their significance in the cello repertoire, which I address in your next question.

How do you place them in the overall cello repertoire and in the history of music?

There is simply no more significant set of pieces in the cello repertoire than these suites. No cellist doubts why it was these works that Pablo Casals (below)  singled out for playing on a daily basis. Thank goodness Casals popularized them as concert pieces (starting about 100 years ago!). In addition, these suites seem to be the only component of the cello repertoire that is better known than its violinistic equivalent.

And what does Bach’s music, cello or otherwise, mean to you personally and as a professional chamber musician?

I am extremely partial to Bach — he is my favorite composer of all, and that is saying a lot. He is a consummate master of the most fundamental aspects of music: melody, harmony (and modulation), rhythm, form, counterpoint, and even development (think of what he does to a motive throughout the course of a fugue, for example).

He was a brilliant improviser. He had an amazing sense of emotion, drama, and time in music. (All of these skills can be found at work in the cello suites, by the way.)

Textbooks or classes on 18th-century counterpoint are usually based more on Bach’s compositions than those of any other composer. Similarly in the case of harmony, for what theory textbook’s material on voice leading (which is often a substantial component of the book) does not essentially teach the rules that we find and point to in the music of Bach?

In other words, when there is a “rule” (or what would otherwise have been a rule) that Bach breaks, we simply rationalize those situations as being OK. Also, think of how much Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and other composers benefitted from studying Bach’s works.

So, I daresay that Bach plays as significant a role as possible in my life as a musician!

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Trust The Ear – you won’t want to miss The Mystery Pianist performing at Farley’s House of Pianos this Wednesday night

August 15, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Wednesday night, August 17, 2011 at 7:30 p.m., Farley’s House of Pianos (below) will host an intimate, salon-style concert by a well-known virtuoso pianist who – for contractual and other reasons – must remain a mystery guest.

I know the name, but unfortunately I can’t even give you clues – though if you look at the ambitiously virtuosic program, you might very well figure out who she is. But what I can say that this bet is NOT a risky one. You will love what you hear. It should be a sell-out, just as it was the last time she played at Farley’s.

(Please leave your “guesses” in the comments section of this blog and that may help other readers to decide.)

The Mystery Pianist, accurately described as “amazing” by Farley’s, is returning to Farley’s to perform by special arrangement.

“We are pleased to welcome her back. Hear this incredible pianist in the intimate salon concert settings for which Farley’s is known,” says the press release.

Tickets are $30. They can be purchased at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. You can also purchase advance tickets are Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street. Reserve tickets with a credit card by calling (608) 271-2626.

The pianist may be mystery at this point, but there is no mystery about the huge program she is playing, which includes homages to the bicentennials of Chopin and Liszt.

The ambitious but also songfully lyrical program includes: Mozart’s Fantasy on C Minor, K. 475; seven Nocturnes by Chopin – below — (Op. 55, No. 1 in F Minor; Op. 15, No. 1 in F Major, Op. 27, No. 1 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 15, No. 2 in F-sharp major, Op. 48, No. 1 in C Minor; Op. 27, No. 2 in  D-Flat Major, and Op. 9, No. 2 in E-Flat major; and Leopold Godowsky’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on J. Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus.””

Then, after intermission,  she will play Six Schubert Songs as transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt – below — (Gute Nacht, Des Mädchens Klage, Der Doppelgänger, Der Erlkönig, Der Müller und der Bach and Ständchen); Schubert’s Impromptu in B Flat Major, Op. 142, No. 3; and Liszt’s “Totentanz” in its solo piano version.

Here is a link with more information (look under Events):

Who do you think The Mystery Pianist is?

If you go, let us know what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Marlboro Festival and Music School turns 60. What makes it work and what is it like?

August 14, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The summer is fast coming to its end. And schools are fast approaching their opening.

So that means another season of summer camp is just about done.

Besides the famed Interlochen summer program in Michigan, the Marlboro Festival in Vermont  (below top) – co-directed by pianists Richard Goode (below middle) and Mitsuko Uchida (below bottom) — might be the most famous summer camp for young chamber musicians?

But what is it like to be a camper there as it marks its 60th anniversary?

Here are two stories that will give you a good idea:

Performances are why rehearsals matters. See and listen:

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music Quiz: What 5 classical performers guarantee sell-outs? What Mozart works does the director of the Mostly Mozart Festival like most? What noises are the most rude or intrusive to make at a concert? Did fiddler Nigel Kennedy ever do illegal drugs?

August 13, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The week has been slow on classicla music news, but big on features. In fact, many of the items make up a kind of quiuz.

Hope you enjoy it.

ITEM: Can you guess who are the five classical music stars that can guarantee a sold-out performance? Ask Washington Post critic and blogger Ann Midgette (below), who wrote a piece on the 40th anniversary of Wolf Trap and cited others’ opinions. Still, The Ear think there are more performers and that sell-outs can also depend on the venue and the program as well other artists.

ITEM: What are the Top Five pieces of Mozart (below top) favored by Mostly Mozart Festival director Louis Langree (below bottom, in a photo by Benjamin Ealovega)? You’ve got to love Frenchman Langree’s candor and openness – as well as his terrific choices, though curiously there are no sonatas, or trios, or string quartets, or viola quintets among them. Take a look and then take a  listen:

ITEM: James Oestreich (below), a music critic from Wisconsin who works for The New York Times, considers the role of annoying and intrusive sounds at concerts – sounds including his own mechanical heart valve as well as oxygen pumps and coughs. What sounds annoy you most at a concert? How about those oblivious listeners who unwrap cellophane-wrapped candies and cough drops during the quietest part of a slow movement?

ITEM: Did Bad Boy concert violinist Nigel Kennedy (below) — aka Kennedy, aka Nigel Kennedy — do drugs at a nightclub with an executive of his recording label who is now a MP (Member of Parliament)? Who knows for sure and who can prove it? But doesn’t it seem out of character for the one-time punky string star?

Who are your favorite performers who would guarantee you’d come to their concert?

What are your Top Five works by Mozart?

What noises most annoy you at a concert?

Did you ever do drugs with Nigel Kennedy?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music Q&A: Madison Opera’s Brian Hinrichs talks about how to build audiences and about his successes and failures in bringing new media and social media to an old art form.

August 12, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the last day on the job for Brian Hinrichs (below), the director of marketing and community engagement for the Madison Opera, which just marked its 50th anniversary this past season and summer.

Hinrichs is leaving his post just as the Madison Opera’s new general director Kathryn Smith taking over and a new season is about to begin.

Here is a link to the new season:

Hinrichs, 26, is leaving to pursue a master’s degree in the highly rated arts administration program under Andrew Taylor at the UW Business School.

I e-mailed Hinrichs some questions about what he did and what he learned during his time with the Madison Opera, which usually played to almost sold-out houses and to usually positive reviews from the critics. He graciously responded:

Could you remind us of your background, age, years at Madison opera, etc. just as an introduction and what you hope to do as a career after you finish the Arts Administration program.

I grew up in Bay Shore, New York, and prior to my position at Madison Opera I was in Thailand on a Fulbright grant, researching classical music trends in Bangkok (below). My wife’s graduate studies brought us to Madison in 2008, so I’ve been with the company for almost exactly three years.

I first became passionate about classical music as a cellist, but in college, a series of internships at the Chenango Summer MusicFest, Chamber Music Magazine, and Glimmerglass Opera (below top is the theater’s exterior, below bottom is the stage interior) turned me on to arts administration.

After attending the Bolz Center, I plan to pursue another position at a performing arts organization, hopefully something that allows me to utilize my MBA and have a hand in long-range planning and programming.

A lot of classical music organizations today are worried about how to reach and attract young people. Can you speak to the potential of classical music using new media and social media from your own experience with the Madison Opera?

Social media offers many fantastic tools for motivating and engaging a fan base, but its potential for building future audiences in classical music is extremely limited compared to education-based initiatives.

That being said, it is absolutely essential for classical music organizations to be on Facebook and Twitter, because that’s where people — indeed, many of them young people — get their news, make their plans, identify their favorite musicians and organizations, and then share all of that information with their friends.

Social media affords the chance for classical music groups to be more accessible, to innovate, break down barriers, and appear relevant. But in my experience, it is first and foremost about simply staying on the radar of your fans, and hopefully picking up a few new ones along the way.

It is important to acknowledge that initiatives on sites like Facebook and Twitter aren’t necessarily going to attract swaths of young people to classical music events, but if they’ve already expressed an interest (such as buying a ticket or “liking” a Facebook page), such initiatives can keep them engaged in ways that weren’t possible before.

Can you give specific examples (opera blog, Bloggers Night, texting donations, Twitter, Facebook) from your own experience at the Madison Opera of what works best and what doesn’t?

Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the past three years. Luckily, the Opera has been very open to experimentation and a trial-and-error approach – it’s really the only way to figure out what works best.

For keeping fans engaged on Facebook, I’ve found that backstage photos, videos, and interviews get people most excited. It’s a peek into the process that is interesting whether you’ve seen 100 operas or one. It’s also important to let your Facebook fans know that you care: responding to comments and offering CD or ticket give-aways shows an appreciation of their commitment to the organization.

Whereas Facebook (below top) has been excellent for nurturing that community of engaged fans and supporters, Twitter (below bottom) has been useful for connecting with local and national media, other opera companies, and local residents who might not necessarily be ready to become a Facebook fan but are happy to follow us more casually. Twitter is much more of a free-for-all: you get updates from a celebrity one minute, CNN the next, and your local opera company after that. It’s a less valuable site for real community building, but good for making connections and attracting audiences outside of your niche.

The MadOpera Blog, which I started and you can link to on our home website (see above), has received quite a bit of positive feedback, partly, I think, because it’s accessible to anyone, with no sign-in or membership necessary.

It’s a place where Madison Opera can really be itself and delve into the music and history of an opera and the production process. Blogs also allow organizations to create long-form coverage for themselves, as such coverage dwindles in the mainstream media. It’s been a great venue to spotlight education initiatives in particular.

As for some social media initiatives that have worked, and some that haven’t, here are two quick examples.  Blogger Night was a big success, first at “Carmen” (below) and then this past season at “The Marriage of Figaro.” Our goal was to engage writers, and in turn their audiences, in an honest conversation about the opera experience.

Some bloggers had come to the opera regularly, others had never been. The results weren’t always flattering, but what came through was the fact that a Madison Opera performance is, at the very least, accessible and worth trying out. It was also just fun to be engaging local writers from different creative threads; everyone, myself included, learned a lot in the process.

Now, a flop would have to be my YouTube contest for Carmen. “Show us Your Habanera” asked Madison Opera fans to create their own version of the famous Habanera song and post it to YouTube; the most creative version would win tickets to the opening night performance of the opera. We received exactly zero entries, and it’s obvious why in retrospect. For starters, at that time we didn’t have a big enough online fan base to try something so ambitious. Either way, coming up with a version of the Habanera, and filming it no less, is just way too much to ask of an entrant with such a small reward. As I said, it’s trial and error.

Where do you see things going in the future?

When I first started at Madison Opera in August 2008, I immediately launched a blog, a Facebook group, and a MySpace page for the company. Within a year, our Facebook group was cancelled and became a Facebook page; we deleted our MySpace page; we joined YouTube’ and we joined Twitter.

Being on Twitter, in turn, has eaten up time and mind space that was previously reserved for blogging, thus making blog posts more infrequent.

Technology, in particular social media sites and apps, is evolving at an extremely rapid pace. Today, people are making a lot of fuss over Google+, Foursquare, Jumo, QR codes, and much more.

Frankly, it is hard to predict what will stick and what won’t. But I do see Facebook staying at the front of the pack for quite some time. I also see the need for organizations like Madison Opera to increase video output (and quality) on YouTube. Live-streaming performances is another trend that’s not necessarily new but is becoming more affordable for smaller organizations, so I think you’ll see that happening with greater frequency over the next few years.

Same with text-to-donate: at Opera in the Park (below) this year  –Madison Opera’s second year offering the option) — mobile donations doubled over last year. Audiences are getting used to it.

As I alluded to earlier, none of these trends in social media will solve classical music’s audience problem. That’s something that lays much deeper in programming, education and institutional organization. But social media are, broadly speaking, comparable to “word of mouth” — something no one would dismiss as unimportant – if organizations want to stay relevant, they need to have an honest and active presence in our everyday world, which, for better or worse, is increasingly online.


Do you have a message or a comment to leave for Brian Hinrichs?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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