The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music datebook: As the holidays approach, vocal and choir music again come to the fore.

November 30, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Clearly, at least when it comes to classical music, this is the busiest week of the season for Holiday Music.

Music is, and always has been and will be, integral to celebration of the holidays. It brightens up the short winter days and expresses so many hopes, so much aspiration and consolation.

It often seems to The Ear that most of the regular concert season belongs in large part to strings, the piano and winds.

But there is no arguing the fact that as the holidays approach, the human voice — both individually and in groups, used by both amateurs and professionals — comes to the fore.

How better could one express the joy that the holidays stand for and the renewal that they represent for individuals and society than by singing?

Sure, brass often comes to the fore and the strings, piano, organ, winds and other instruments still play important roles. But their roles are usually secondary or back-up. Just look at the numerous following events and you will see how much the human voice means now I and in the coming weeks  — and the datebook doesn’t even include churches and synagogues or private homes or popular music.

Take a look. Take a listen.


No classical musician in Madison “keeps a better Christmas” – as Charles Dickens might put it — than maestro John DeMain (below, in his Santa hat), whose “Christmas Spectacular” concerts with the Madison Symphony Orchestra have become legendary over the 18 years of his tenure.

This year, the Christmas Spectacular returns with MSO favorites including  soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine, local bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Dario Acosta) and organist Samuel Hutchison.

Classical repertoire will be mixed with carols and popular music.

The caroling in the lobby of the Overture Center prior to the performance has become one of this concert’s most popular aspects.

The Madison Symphony Chorus, Madison Youth Choirs (below top) and Mt. Zion Gospel Choir (below bottom) once again join the MSO as local participants in an event that draws more than 6,000 people to Overture Hall, year after year.

Performances are in Overture Hall, 201 State St. on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Season Subscriptions are available at and through the MSO offices at 608 257-3734.

Subscribers save up to percent with five-concert packages starting at just $56. Flex Ticket packages are also available.

Single concert tickets are $16.50-$78.50 and are available at and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, 608 258-4141.

Seniors and students save 20% and the MSO’s $10 Student Rush is good  for the best available seats on the day of the concert. Groups of 15 or more save 25 percent.

The FREE Friday Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., at the First Unitarian Society (below), 900 University Bay Drive, will feature Jeffrey Wagner playing piano music of Mozart and Liszt. For information, call or visit 233-9774 or visit

On Friday, December 2, at 7 p.m. in St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, Edgewood College (below) will present the 84th annual Edgewood College Christmas Concert.

The Edgewood College Guitar Ensemble, Concert Band, Chamber Singers, Women’s Choir and Jazz Ensemble will perform a variety of holiday works, and audience members will be invited to join in singing traditional carols.

Tickets are $7, which will support music scholarships. Tickets may be reserved in advance at

NOTE: The concert will be streamed live on

Friday, December 2 at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble and Verona High School Band, directed by Scott Teeple (below) and Eric Anderson, will perform. Free admission.

The program includes works by Morten Lauridsen, David Maslanka, Shostakovich and Rossini. The combined ensembles will perform “Children’s March” by Percy Grainger (arr. Rogers).  NOTE: The entire program will be webcast live at


The UW Horn Choir will present their popular annual holiday concert at the Chazen Museum of Art on Saturday at 1 p.m. 

This year’s ensemble, made up of 10 music majors from around the country, will perform Bach’s Prelude, selections from Handel’s Water Music, and Gabrieli’s Three Canzons, as well as some seasonal music and “Privilege of Being” by Madison composer Douglas Hill, the previous horn choir director. This festive event is free and open to the public. It will take place, as in past years, in the museum’s Paige Court.

Daniel Grabois (below) will conduct the annual horn choir concert for the first time as he replaces longtime director Douglas Hill, who retired. Grabois was appointed assistant professor of horn at the UW–Madison School of Music in September 2011. The former chair of the Department of Contemporary Performance at the Manhattan School of Music, he is also the hornist in the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a sextet of brass and percussion soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Refreshments will be served following the performance.

Saturday, December 3 at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW All-University String Orchestra, under conductor Janet Jensen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), conducts two complete orchestras in works by Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Schulhoff, J. Strauss, Tchaikovsky and others. Students Dorothy Hui and Daniel Jacobs conduct works by Geminiani, Persichetti and Ives. Free admission.

One way to light up the short days of winter is with bright and sunny Italian music. The Madison-based group Candid Concert Opera (below) is offering three FREE performances of Rossini’s popular opera “The Barber of Seville”  in non-traditional places and practices. Opera singers, a narrator and a chamber orchestra will be used in this version.

Here are the dates and locations:

This Saturday, December 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Oakwood West Village, 6201 Mineral Point Road in Madison.

Also: On Friday, December 9, at 7 p.m. in the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, in Madison; and Saturday, December 10, at 4 p.m. in St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2126 North Sherman Ave. in Madison.

For more information, visit:


“Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” features welcomes cellist Paul Kosower with pianist Owen Lovell from 12:30 to 2 pm. in Brittingham Gallery Number III at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Kosower is Professor Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he served as professor of cello and conductor of the University Chamber Orchestra. Owen Lovell, Assistant Professor of Piano at UW-Eau Claire, has appeared as soloist, accompanist, chamber musician, and new music advocate in 12 U.S. States, Washington D.C., Canada, Mexico, and the Netherlands.

The program features some of the most well known and beloved classics of the cello repertoire by such composers as Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Debussy, Mendelssohn and Faure, as well as the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Cesar Franck.

Members of the Chazen Museum of Art or Wisconsin Public Radio can call ahead and reserve seats for “Sunday Afternoon Live” performances. Seating is limited. All reservations must be made Monday through Friday before the concert and claimed by 12:20 p.m. on the day of the performance.

For more information or to learn how to become a museum member, contact the Chazen Museum at 608 263-2246.

A reception (below) follows the performance, with refreshments generously donated by Fresh Madison Market, Coffee Bytes and Steep & Brew. A free docent-led tour in the Chazen galleries begins every Sunday at 2 p.m.

Sunday, December 4 at 2 and 4 p.m., in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the UW Winter Choral Concerts, with five of the UW School of Music’s seven choirs, will take place. Free admission with a free will offering.

Performers include: the Concert Choir, directed by Beverly Taylor (below); Madrigal Singers and Chorale, directed by Bruce Gladstone; the Women’s Chorus, directed by Sarah Riskind; and the University Chorus, directed by Russell Adrian.

Sunday, December 4 at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band, directed by Scott Teeple, Matthew Schlomer, Matthew Mireles, Allison Jaeger and Toby Shucha, will perform. Free admission.

The program includes “Shepherd’s Hey!” by Percy Grainger; “Suite Francaise” by Darius Milhaud; “Trauermusik” by Richard Wagner; “East Coast Portraits” by Nigel Hess; and “Russian Christmas Music” by Alfred Reed.

On Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood College Campus-Community Choir and the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will perform a music scholarship benefit concert under the direction of Albert Pinsonneault (below, conducting the Edgewood College Chamber Singers).

The concert will feature works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn as well as traditional Christmas carols and excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.” Tickets are $7, and may be purchased at the door.

Sunday, December 4 at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall: Three University Bands will perform under the direction of Justin Stolarik, Matthew Schlomer and Matthew Mireles. Free admission.

Works include the “Second Suite in F major” by Gustav Holst; “Passacaglia: Homage on B-A-C-H” by Ron Nelson; “Four Scottish Dances” by Malcolm Arnold; “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson; “The Young Prince and Princess” from “Scheherazade” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov; and “West Side Story Selection” by Bernstein, arr. Duthoit.


On Monday, December 5 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Masters Singers, directed by Sarah Riskind and Brian Gurley, will perform. Free admission.

The program includes “There Shall a Star Come out of Jacob” by Mendelssohn; the 16th-century villancico “Riu, Riu, Chiu”; the Finale from “The Gondoliers” by Sir Arthur Sullivan; “Glory to God” and “The Last Words of David” by Randall Thompson; and works by Gluck and Lassus.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Books, science, art, religion and early music meet in a FREE concert Thursday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library

November 29, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received late word of about a very intriguing, unusual and FREE concert.

The Mellon Workshop on Science & Print Culture presents “Kircher’s Rome: Music in the 17th-century Collegio Romano” as performed by the Madison-based early music group Eliza’s Toyes (below).

The early music vocal ensemble is led by the very talented Jerry Hui (below), who is also a composer and new music advocate while finishing his graduate studies at the UW School of Music.

It will take place this Thursday, December 1, at 4:30 p.m. in the Special Collections Room, on the 9th floor (F section) of the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library (below).

That’s where the current exhibit, “Jesuits and the Construction of Knowledge, 1540-1773,” highlights, among other topics, Jesuit interest in music and includes a copy of Kircher’s “Musurgia” (1650, below). The library is located at 728 State Street on Library Mall across from the Memorial Union. (I suggest parking in the nearby Lake Street ramp.)

This program reflects vocal and instrumental music one might have heard in the Society of Jesus‘ college in 17th-century Rome. Professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano and polymath, Athanasius Kircher mentioned these composers in his “Musurgia Universalis” (1650), a monumental encyclopedia of musical history, theory and practice.

The program includes: “Ecce sic benedicetur” by Christóbal Morales (1500-1553); “Dunque con stile” by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (1580-1651); “In lectulo meo per noctes” from Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650); and “Historia di Jephte” by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674).

The performers include: Katherine Peck, soprano; Chelsie Propst, soprano; Sandy Erickson, alto/recorder; Steve Johnson, tenor; Ben Li, baritone; Jerry Hui, bass/recorder; Doug Towne, theorbo; Theresa Koenig, dulcian/bassoon; and Andrea Kleesattel, cello.

The faculty guest performer will be UW baritone Paul Rowe (below, in photo by Katrin Talbot).

For more information about Eliza’s Toyes, see:

For location and directions about the Memorial Library, see:

This program is part of the A.W. Mellon Interdisciplinary Workshops in the Humanities, sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at UW-Madison with support from the A.W. Mellon Foundation. It is co-sponsored by the UW School of Music.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Some interesting and unusual concerts of opera, early music and percussion are on tap mid-week on Tuesday and Wednesday nights

November 28, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

They come comparatively early in the week, but The Ear has received word of some concerts that may interest you:

First comes another of the growing attempts to find alternative venues and new audiences by taking classical music out of the concert hall.

Tomorrow night, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, from 7 to 9 p.m. at The Brink Lounge (below top), 701 East Washington Ave., Suite 105, the Madison-based groups Fresco Opera Theatre & Candid Concert Opera will be performing an evening of opera. Tickets are $10.

A press release reads: “This will be a unique opportunity for us to perform in an environment that is not usually associated with classical music. Cummerbunds, opera glasses and fur coats not required as Fresco Opera Theatre & Candid Concert Opera (below) join forces to present a one of a kind operatic experience that will knock you off your feet! On top of hearing and seeing this beautiful art form up close and personal, you’ll have a chance to hear both opera companies dish about what we do and how we do it.”

For more information, visit:

Also on Tuesday, November 29 at 8:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, the UW Early Music Ensemble, directed by professor Jeanne Swack (below bottom, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will perform. Admission is free.

Music of the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, including works by Andrea Gabrieli, Salamone Rossi, Antonio Vivaldi, G. P. Telemann and others.

Performers are Melanie Traeger and Karen Bishop, sopranos; Jennifer Sams, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Breisach and Millie Chang, baroque flute; Jeanne Swack, baroque flute and recorders; Brian Ellingboe, baroque bassoon; Doug Lindsey, cornetto; Greg Schultz, harpsichord; and Alexander Whitaker, harpsichord and organ.

Then on Wednesday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m., in Mills Hall, the UW Western Percussion Ensemble (below top), directed by Anthony Di Sanza (below bottom), will perform. Admission is free.

The program includes a premiere performance of “Radioactive Octopus” for marimba quartet by Steven Simpson; and works for chamber percussion by John Cage, William Duckworth, Michael Udow and others.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: Should classical music concerts be shorter and have no intermission?

November 27, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

It is an interesting question to ponder at a time when most observers say that most of us today have shortened attention spans – thanks to the Internet and TV; to new media. social media and texting; and to multi-tasking.

It is especially interesting to think about at a time when so many people are looking for appealing and untraditional ways to present classical music, including the use of non-traditional venues such as night clubs and coffee houses where a long program is simply not practical or desirable.

Could it be that the concert paradigm is shifting; that maybe more is really less and less is really more?

Is it possible that today’s audiences find that a long and well-planned concert — usually lasting 1-1/2 to 2 hours these days — is not so much a great deal as an ordeal?

Maybe as lot of us might be shy to admit that, deep-down, we would prefer going to shorter concerts, maybe even concerts short enough that you don’t even need an intermissions?

I have also considered shorter but more continuous program with two very short breaks rather than one long intermission, which often interrupts the mood, stops the momentum and tries one’s patience, especially after a busy day or week or having to go to work or somewhere early in the morning.

Could that mean programming more short works and fewer long or even epic works?

And could shorter programs mean lower ticket prices? Or the chance to attend more events?

These issues are all worth thinking about and came up in a recent thought-provoking blog I read and want to share:

What do you think about shorter concerts?

And what about eliminating or curtailing intermissions?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: Pianist Yuja Wang is not new or alone. What is the sexiest classical music ever composed?

November 26, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

As I did last year, between now and New Year’s, I will periodically feature what I call “holiday leftovers.”

It is kind of like what you do when you finish up the odds and ends, the remaining usable scraps, of what you still have from the feasts and big meals you prepared previously.

So today I want to ask: What is the sexiest piece of classical music ever composer that you know of?

It is timely question to ask, especially with all the fuss about pianist Yuja Wang (below) and the sexy dress she wore when she performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl. Sexiness in music goes back a lot further than the 24-year-old Wang and includes composers as well as performers.

More directly, the question was inspired by the terrific opening performance earlier this fall by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with guest pianist Ilya Yakushev (below) under conductor Andrew Sewell.

They played the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Serge Prokofiev. And I think its opening bars and swelling waves of sound are totally sensual and sexual, ecstatic and orgasmic, maybe even female-ly so. You can decide for yourself. Take a listen and tell me:

But of course probably the biggest, best known and sexiest piece of all time, and deliberately composed to be that way, is the “Liebestod” or “Love Death,” from Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde.”

It reminds of the old Saturday Night Live skit. Please answer the following multiple choice question: How many orgasms can the human female experience during sexual intercourse: a) 1; b) 2: c) 3; d) dozens and dozens.

Oh,my fellow males — talk about feeling inferior and inadequate!

Anyway, I’ll leave the answer to all you readers to decide.

But here is the enthralling and captivating Wagner piece, sung by Waltraud Meier, to help you decide:

Are there others?

I think so.

I find, for example, that the second movement of Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” dedicated to Chopin but filled with yearning for Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), is another top candidate for The Sexiest Piece of Classical Music Ever Composed:

And I haven’t even touched on such a sensual mystic as Russian composer Alexander Scriabin or on Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky – and I wonder, what makes Russian composers so sexy? Is it their love of melody? And what about the French composers like  Faure and Debussy or the Italian opera composers, especially Puccini.

So tell me your nominations — more than one is allowed and even encouraged — for the The Sexiest Piece of Classical Music Ever Composed.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music gift ideas: Forget Black Friday hype, big store shopping and exaggerated consumerism. Give music lessons and tickets plus your companionship to a local live concert.

November 25, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

I am getting so tired of, and even angry with, the media hype and build-up around the next several days as a Shopping Utopia that you just must participate in if you don’t want to miss out on Great Buys and the American Way of Life.

It is ugly and crass consumerism at its worst – and this year some Big Box stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Macy’s even started it a day earlier, ruining some holiday cheer for a lot of workers and their families.

Today is Black Friday (below). Saturday is Small Business Day or Local Saturday. Monday is Cyber-Monday. What’s next?

How about Boycott Tuesday? Or  Spend Nothing Wednesday?

You’ll hear all about it, with lots of stats about people, sales and money plus the percentage increases or decreases form last year. And you will hear about it endlessly and everywhere, in the mainstream media and even in alternative media and on the Internet.

But not here. You don’t need me for that.

And I don’t want to encourage that kind of mass crassness.

But I do want to suggest some holiday gifts you would likely NOT find advertised on those namesake days.

They don’t concern such typical gifts as recordings and books.

I say here are two great holiday gifts to give for people.

First, give someone – a young person or an older person, it doesn’t matter – some music lessons.

Buy a month’s worth of something that seems to interest them, say singing or piano or violin lessons, and let them try out making music for themselves. Just look on the Internet and in the Yellow Pages for teachers. Or maybe ask around. Or consult as local music department of a university or conservatory.

In Madison, for example, you could consult the Madison Area Piano Teachers Association (MAPTA):

Or the Independent Strings Teachers of Madison:

You could also call the UW School of Music, Madison College (formerly Madison Area Technical College) or Edgewood College for advice. That’s what I did one year, and it worked out great.

This kind of gift works for any age, and some teachers specialize in adults or children. I think lessons make a perfect gift for someone about to retire (no, you are never too old to start) or for children whose school arts budgets are being cut.

And believe me, making music is exponentially better than just listening to it.

Second, I say give people the gift of a live concert coupled with your presence and companionship. Get two tickets and accompany someone somewhere. Music is a social event and communication, and nothing beats live music – especially in a city like Madison where so much classical music is accessible as well as free or very affordable.

If you heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra recently perform Ravel’s “La Valse” or, several seasons ago, “Bolero,” you know the excitement of live performance over canned recordings. Ditto for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert performance with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Ditto for young violinist Caroline Goulding’s debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater. And ditto for the FREE Pro Arte Quartet Centennial Concerts and world premieres (below) at the UW School of Music, which offers some 300 free events a year, which will offer two more in March and April.

Music is meant to be a live experience, with both flaws and flights of inspiration and spontaneity.

I will have some more specific holiday gift suggestions, including CDs and books as well as concert tickets, as December wears on.

But in the meantime, please give these kinds of alternatives to commercialism some thought or consideration.

I bet a lot of people would be very grateful recipients.

Do you have some unusual gift ideas involving classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: What classical music goes best with Thanksgiving dinner – or eating and entertaining in general?

November 24, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 is Thanksgiving Day in the US.

So it seems a good time to pose a timely question: What music can you put on in the background as you are socializing and eating?

To many critics and musicians, it is heresy even to suggest that music can be used as background to, say, a dinner or even a holiday feast like Thanksgiving.

Well, too bad for the purists, I say. They lose the argument before it starts.

Even NPR recently asked readers what specific music they identify with specific foods and wines:

I won’t go that far or get that specific, although I wouldn’t mind your suggestions.

And it is certainly true that too often these days music is reduced to Muzak (“Not Just a Melody But a Management Tool” was the corporate motto) or to elevator music or iPod selections or supermarket and mall music.

But even serious composers recognized the social role of music as entertainment linked to other events in a secondary role. After all, life doesn’t always offer us the time to focus exclusively on one thing. We didn’t invent multi-tasking, and the musicians I know tend to be very social.

Besides, sometimes the musical background can even add to the enjoyment.

So it was that Haydn and Mozart composed serenades and divertimenti for courtly events (below, Mozart playing at a salon concert). Bach composed his various suites, which were heard while others talked. Telemann composed a ton of Table Music. And Handel wrote some pretty congenial music.

Over the year, by test and trial, I have found that certain music works better than others. So for what they are worth, I offer those lessons in a holiday mood of sharing and helpfulness.

For example, I generally avoid songs and choral music because the works – even in a foreign language – create cross-interference with the conversation.

I like works that are short and that are familiar or seem familiar, even if they are not, so you can tune in and tune out and then tune in again.

I also avoid larger ensemble like chamber or symphony orchestras, which have to be played pretty loud if you want to hear the various parts and sections.

I also generally avoid music with a very wide range of dynamic contrasts because you either hear loud music or silence and the back-and-forth of it all is annoying. That puts a lot of Beethoven and Romantic music off-limits, to say nothing of Mahler (below) and Bruckner, who were not exactly party boys in any case.

I find that baroque music and chamber music generally work best, and I find that music that tends to even dynamics and with predominately middle and lower registers (say, the cello or the piano) works well.

So here are some of my favorites to play with the volume adjust just loud enough that you can hear it if you focus or ignore if you want:

Scarlatti sonatas on PIANO: The harpsichord is too twangy and unusual and sharp to blend in. (I like recordings by Andras Schiff, Alexandre Tharaud and Vladimir Horowitz among others.)

Sonatas, concerti and concerti grossi for strings and winds (generallty not brass) by all sorts of Baroque composers including Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Corelli, Geminiani and Telemann.

Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions: (I like Peter Serkin and Till Fellner, who offer very different interpretations of them.) I also DJ Bach’s cello suites (Jian Wang), French suites (Andras Schiff, below playing) and English suites (Murray Perahia).

Mozart’s violin sonatas (I like Arthur Grumiaux and Hilary Hahn’s recordings) and Schubert’s violin music (Pamela Frank).

Handel’s keyboard suites on piano (I like Keith Jarrett and Murray Perahia.)

In a more modern and voluptuous or sensual vein, I love Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartets and Quintets (Pascal Roge and Ysaye Quartet). And solo guitar music is often terrific, though I generally avoid harp music.

There are more, but that will do for now.

I know that some of you will still not be convinced. But there are many more non-feast days than feast days in a given year. So there is plenty of time to focus just of music without worrying about go food or conversation.

So Happy Thanksgiving!

And let me know: What music it do you prefer to play when entertaining?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Which composers and performers would you invite for Thanksgiving dinner? Here are the names that NPR critic Miles Hoffman, along with his readers and listeners, suggests.

November 23, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 24, is Thanksgiving.

NPR recently featured classical musician and commentator Miles Hoffman on which composers – limited to dead composers — he would like to invite to his Thanksgiving Table.

Mozart was tempting, but his potty mouth and off-color humor proved off-putting for Hoffman. A little profanity goes a long way, especially at holiday time. But hey, fans of Louis Black like me appreciate the spice.

Beethoven was just too grumpy and plain rude. Genius is one thing; compatibility another.

Like Hoffman, I say, J.S. Bach (below) is tops because of his joy in his work as well as his taste for beer and his zest for life. He played in courts, churches and coffee houses. He toured and was much earthier than many people think. How anti-social could the prolific father of 20 children and more than a thousand musical works be?

The well-traveled and collaborative Handel would be another good choice. But for me, right after Bach comes Franz Schubert (below). He was by all accounts a friendly and outgoing man with great empathy who frequented taverns and loved to make music, including many four-hand piano works, with friends at the “Schubertiades.”

I would also invite Papa Haydn (below), who seemed both extremely inventive and extremely congenial, a charming and cosmopolitan man with highly developed courtly and social skills he exercised in Austria, France and England.

Maybe I would like Mendelssohn and Berlioz, whom Hoffman chooses, but I can think of others I prefer.

Chopin (below), though shy, was apparently a good salon and party guest, even if he tended to sneak off with just a couple of other guests and improvise at the piano until the wee hours.

I would take the manic Schumann over the taciturn Brahms. Better yet, I suspect, would be Dvorak (below), whose music exudes amiability.

Debussy (below), who was a sensualist and who had a reputation for tart replies and droll commentaries, could be fun – as long as you have a thick skin and like one-liners. And the sharp-tongued Frenchman generally appreciated good food, if not the religiosity surrounding the holiday.

And I think the cultivated Stravinsky would be a better guest than, say, Schoenberg or Bloch, whom Hoffman favors.

But best of all 20th century composers would be Francis Poulenc (below), another convivial Frenchman who loved jokes, the music hall and popular culture in general.

Hoffman hit the nail of the head by inviting Leonard Bernstein (below). Is there any doubt that menschy Lenny would be fun before, during and after the party?

And flirty George Gershwin is also a good choice, for that matter, since he also was a party boy who loved a good time.

But how about Scott Joplin (below)? I expect he and his great contagious ragtime music would add a lot of fun to the feast. I bet he would also have some great stories to tell.

We’re missing a woman or two. But that’s more a problem of history since there are plenty of living women composers who would be fun to entertain. And I just don’t know enough to guess about Fanny Mendelssohn or Hildegard von Bingen or Germaine Tailleferre or Amy Beach. Maybe Nadia Boulanger would be a fine guest.

Anyway, here is a link to Miles Hoffman’s story on NPR.

You can read the shorter version, but I urge you to listen to the longer 7-1/2 minute radio version (click on the loudspeaker icon). It is much more fun and thought-provoking, and it has music:

Which composers would you invite to your imaginary Thanksgiving dinner feast?

And let’s go beyond Hoffman: Which performers do you think it would be fun to have Thanksgiving with?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet scores another success with the world premiere of Paul Schoenfield’s “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet” and a lecture by NPR’s Bill McGlaughlin. But where are The Big Critics who harp on New Music?

November 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend saw the second concert of this season’s ongoing centennial celebration of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet. It brought the world premiere of the second of the four new works that the quartet has commissioned: Paul Schoenfield’s “Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet.”

The performance also featured guest pianist Brian Hsu (below , with the Pro Arte), who is studying at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where Schoenfield is teaching composition.

It takes a while for new music to settle down in the listener’s mind. But after two hearings  — the first live on Saturday night in Mills Hall, the second from a live broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Sunday Live at the Chazen” – I have some impressions.

First, the 30-minute work is an accessible and enjoyable work for the general public to hear, much like Schoenfield’s very popular and much performed “Café Music.” It is a little more spiky, but overall goes down easily.

Second, it is deceptive in its tunes and a fiercely difficult work to play. Even during its comparatively “easier” parts, the score seems to require great virtuosity from the string quartet and especially from the pianist, which is not surprising given that Schoenfield (below) himself is a concert-level pianist.

That leads me to two major questions.

Given how often music critics complain about the lack of New Music, why haven’t the Pro Arte Quartet commissions received more reviews and other coverage or attention from the The Big Critics on the East and West Coasts?

Is the Midwest just Fly-Over Land culturally, too? Do world premieres of works by major composers not really count unless they take place in New York, LA or DC? That is another question worth pursuing for another time, but it is certainly worth at least raising now.

One way that Schoenfield anchors his music is by linking it to other art, both vernacular or popular and high-brow. So the first rhapsody drew on the 1950’s doo-wop song “Get a Job” by The Silhouettes; the second drew on a love story novella by Henry James, “The Bench of Desolation”; and the third rhapsody (an excerpt is below) drew on the energetic rhythms and appealing harmonies and melodies of klezmer music that has influenced other of Schoenfield’s compositions.

To my ears, the most appealing part of the three was the high-energy finale. After that I would put the second rhapsody, which starts in the quasi-atonal mood of unrequited love and finishes with the beautifully tonal pathos and redemption of the original story.

The fun first movement is impressive as a performance pieces – at times an ensemble toccata — but musically it seems the least interesting and lasting, though perhaps the most immediately accessible and recognizable, of the three.

Still, I think this music has a future, although that future may be a bit compromised by the difficulty of the score. Certainly the audience liked it and greeted it with prolonged applause and an immediate standing ovation.

There were other things worth noting about the events on Saturday, the culmination of a five days of lectures, rehearsals and workshops.

For one, the audience was even bigger than for the first concert in October. This time I would put the house at over 90 percent, with maybe 50 free seats.) Some audience members left after intermission, but not many.

The Pro Arte Quartet (below) itself was in fine shape, turning in a dark and moody Shostakovich Quartet No. 4 in D Major. The second half featured Beethoven’s late Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Beethoven thought it was his finest. But Beethoven was wrong, just as he was wrong when he thought his Op. 78 piano sonata was better than the famous “Moonlight” Sonata. (He was, however, right about his “Appassionata” Sonata and the Symphony No. 7.)

The Pro Arte played the Beethoven very well and with intensity. But a certain edge and depth seemed missing or at least attenuated. One wondered if perhaps the hard work of preparing the Schoenfield cut into the preparation of the quirky Beethoven, which itself is deceptively hard with a quiet virtuosity. As Stravinsky once said, Beethoven’s late quartets will always be contemporary. Such a beautiful but unorthodox work does not play itself or come across easily, to be sure, especially after the dark and brooding Shostakovich and the lively and crackling Schoenfield. For all its many beauties, the concluding Beethoven somehow seemed betwixt and between.

Some other things about Saturday’s events deserve singling out.

Earlier in the afternoon the host of NPR’s “Exploring Music,” Bill McGlaughlin (below) turned in a terrrific performance as he discussed the artist as an early warning signal of cultural change. He spoke to a full house in an auditorium at the UW Business School.

It was illuminating to see McGlaughlin, who combines deep erudition with easy accessibility, at work. He tends to be associative and to meander, not always completing the point he has started or answering the question he has been asked. But this composer, former conductor and orchestra musician demonstrates a vast knowledge and deep personal appreciation of classical music as well as the ability to make unexpected connections among Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Wagner and Schoenberg. And when he sat down, silent and with his eyes closed just to listen, the intensity of his involvement in music was obvious, endearing and telling.

The Ear was particularly interested to hear McGlaughlin discuss Mozart (below) as a dangerous, demonic and sensually subversive composer  in the opera ”Don Giovanni” and the String Quintet in G Minor  as well as the sublime charmer of so many other works.

During the pre-concert question-and-answer session between McGlaughlin and Schoenfield (below, with moderator John W. Barker in the middle), composer Schoenfield also confessed to the endless difficulty he still has composing and made some surprisingly frank and personal revelations about how he works, including his use of a composer.

Kudos also to the University Club, which provided a tasty buffet dinner (and free post-concert dessert reception) where one could mingle with other local musicians, including Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conductor Andrew Sewell and UW oboist Marc Fink among many others. Clearly, the Pro Arte Quartet Centennial celebration seems expanding as it continues, not petering out.

If you are thinking about attending the third and fourth world-premiere concerts – and you should, if you love classical music and chamber music  –here is the information: They are FREE and will be held on Saturday, March 24, at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater (William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 with UW virtuoso Christopher Taylor, plus works by Webern, Milhaud and Mozart) and on Saturday, April 23, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall (John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 plus works by Haydn and Franck). You might well enjoy the cash-bar receptions and dinners.

For more information about the various concerts, open rehearsals, lectures and dinner reservations, visit

If you want to stream the Saturday night performances and hear them for yourself, go to this address and click on the loudspeaker icon on Nov. 19 and also Oct. 22:

For other local reviews of this past weekend, see Lindsay Christians’ in 77 Square (The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal):

And see Greg Hettmansberger’s for his Madison Magazine blog “Classically Speaking”:

If you heard the Pro Arte Quartet concert or part of it, what do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music shout-out: The Madison Symphony Orchestra will expose 5,000 young students on Tuesday to classical music related to art and to young concerto winners who are their peers.

November 21, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

As our so-called “business-friendly” state government takes its knives to school budgets and arts agencies, and as art education and music education inevitably suffer, was there ever a better time to recognize those individuals and organizations that enhance the future involvement of our society’s children in the arts?

Hence this post, which is really little more than a well-deserved shout-out to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), which will perform three Fall Youth Concerts to packed houses, for a total of about 5,000 upper elementary and middle school students, on this Tuesday morning and afternoon on Overture Hall.

To be fair, many local arts organizations, including the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin School Music Association and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, do similar events and also deserve praise.

I went to two of the three concerts last year (below), and was impressed by the size and enthusiasm of the student houses as well as by the players and maestro John DeMain (below, at last year’s Fall Youth Concerts), who related to the students so easily and naturally.

The theme this year is the relationship between art and music. The Ear considers that a theme to be two-fer in the current arts-hostile and education-hostile environment of Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. (Tellingly, the Wisconsin governor recently snubbed the Governor’s Arts Awards.)

Many, many choices of both music and paintings or art works are possible (see below).

But the music programmed by the MSO includes, of course, excerpts from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures an an Exhibition” as well as Vivaldi’s “Autumn” Concerto “The Four Seasons” and Copland’s “El Salon Mexico.” Images include paintings by Van Gogh (below), Monet, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera among others.

The two winners of the 2011 Fall Youth Concerto Competition will be also this year’s honored guest soloists. At the 9:15 a.m. and 1 p.m. performances, pianist Audrianna Wu will play Mendelssohn’s Capriccio Brilliant, Op. 22 in B minor: and at the 11:15 a.m. performance, violinist Julian Rhee will play Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s “Carmen,” Op. 25.

For information about the concerts and how they are organized, visit:

For notes and a downloadable curriculum guide about the program (which last year I found useful to adults and seasoned concert-goers as well as to students), go to:

Meanwhile, parents and teachers, please encourage your students who went to the concert to tell The Ear what they thought by writing a short critique or reaction in the COMMENTS section of this blog.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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