The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” is the perfect music to mark the start of winter. But do you prefer it sung by a baritone or a tenor?

December 22, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Technically, where I live, in the American Midwest, winter began yesterday, Wednesday, Dec. 21, when the solstice occurred at 11:30 p.m.

That means that today is really the first full day of winter.

And that, in turn, means it is time for one of my ritual listening sessions.

I am almost always prefer instrumental music to vocal music.

But the coming of winter is one exception. I don’t want to hear Vivaldi’s “Winter” from “The Four Seasons” or Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony or other such fare. (Maybe you can suggest your favorite winter piece?)

The first day of winter – with its dark, short days and cold temperatures – is almost always a good time for me to listen to what I consider to be the best, most relevant and most moving song cycle ever written: “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below) from 1828, the year he died at 31.

But curiously, my preference for how I like it sung has changed.

That is a good thing.

Last year was especially memorable. I heard a an outstandingly live candle-lit performance (below) of “Winterreise” on the night of the winter solstice with UW-Madison baritone Paul Rowe and UW pianist Martha Fischer. They had recorded it as a book, with a CD plus atmospheric black-and-white sepia-toned photographs by Madison artist Katrin Talbot. (It is published by the UW Press).

But overall, I have found that I have moved from preferring richer and more artistic sounding versions with deep and more resonant baritones (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Quasthoff (below), to more matter-of-fact sounding, but no less artful, versions often sung by tenors whose sound seems thin to some ears.

It is a kind of boyish voice apparently a lot of British listeners prefer.

And sure enough, over the several couple years, two recorded cycles have superceded my CDs recordings by Rowe and by Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau: tenor Ian Bostridge (below top) with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI) and tenor Mark Padmore (below bottom) with pianist Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi).

Both versions are terrific, but I give an edge to Bostridge.

He moves right along, and so has a shorter overall timing for the 24-song cycle (about 69 minutes versus 74 minutes). And I love his crisp and clear articulation.

True, not all the songs in the long cycle capture me equally. But when they do hook me, they hook me deeply.

Two of my favorites are the opening “Good Night” and especially the closing “The Organ Grinder” or “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” at the end. The latter is the perfect vehicle for expressing the physical winter of the land and existential winter of the soul.

There is something about the relative thinness of the tenor voice that to me expresses vulnerability and seems more personal and natural.  Add in the almost “Sprachstimme,” or speech-like quality of the singing, and it almost seems conversational. The bleakness and starkness of the music, both piano and voice, and the text a;; seem perfectly matched to their purpose. 

It is as if someone is confiding their story and sorrows to you almost confessionally, one–on-one, rather than performing for you – a goal for all singers and songs, I imagine.

But I am sure my preferences will change with my mood and with the quality of different performers. Besides, changes of interpretation can be a healthy thing. Tey help you hear the music anew.

So I find myself asking: What do you prefer for this landmark and timeless song cycle of “Winterreise” — a baritone or a tenor?

On this post I have posted samples of each from YouTube.

Compare them and let me know which ones you prefer and why.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: The Kipperton String Quartet from the UW-Platteville makes its Madison debut in works by Mozart, Dvorak and Britten this Thursday night at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center in a FREE concert.

December 21, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The already tremendously rich classical music scene in Madison just keeps getting richer.

If you are looking for a break from the ever-present, non-stop and even oppressive holiday music all around you right now, you might try attending a FREE debut concert Thursday night by a welcome newcomer to the Madison-area chamber music scene: The Kipperton String Quartet.

The performance is Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street, in downtown Madison near the Capitol Square.

The program of masterpieces includes Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 (one of the six great quartets Mozart composed for Haydn); Three Divertimenti by Benjamin Britten; and Dvorak’s famous “American” String Quartet (an excerpt is at bottom).

A press release reads: “The Kipperton String Quartet is known for its high energy and musical depth. It was recently appointed as the very first String Quartet in Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (below).

“The Madison concert is a repeat of the quartet’s inaugural recital last Tuesday at the UW-Platteville, which more than 200 people attended and which kicked off the quartet’s residency there.”

It also adds another string quartet to a city hat already boasts the Pro Arte, the Ancora, the Rhapsodie and the Oakwood Chamber Players. What a rich chamber music scene that is for a city of 250,000 in a county of 500,000!

The Kipperton String Quartet consists of (below, from left) violinists Timothy Kamps and Wes Luke; violist Paul Alan Price-Brenner; and cellist Kevin Price-Brenner.

This local and regional string quartet first met in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and quickly coalesced into the premiere string quartet of the tri-state area.  In addition to the DSO, the members also play in other orchestras such as the LaCrosse Symphony, Madison Symphony, the Quad City Symphony, and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestras.

Should you want to meet the members and get to know them more in-depth, here are their individual biographies with their teachers and training — much of it local at the University of Wisconsin School of Music — and current professional posts:

Timothy Kamps, violin, is Associate Concertmaster for the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), and performs regularly with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.  Mr. Kamps studied principally with Everett Goodwin, Roland and Almita Vamos, Vartan Manoogian and Felicia Moye, and received his Bachelor of Arts in Violin Performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wes Luke, violin, plays Principal Second Violin in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra (below) and also plays with the Madison Symphony and LaCrosse Symphony Orchestras. He has performed widely across the United States, Europe, and Japan. He received his undergraduate degree with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music studying under Boston Symphony concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. He completed his Masters degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying under Felicia Moye.  Mr. Luke also teaches strings at Clarke University and Loras College.

Paul Alan Price-Brenner, viola, plays viola and violin in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra (below).  He received his Bachelor of Music Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his Masters of Music in Composition at DePaul University, and is a PhD candidate in Music Composition at the University of Iowa.  His principal teachers are Tyrone Grieve, Rami Solomonow and Christine Rutledge.  Mr. Price-Brenner is the Violin/Viola Studio Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and is Conductor of the Quad City Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

Kevin Price-Brenner, cello, plays Principal Cello in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra in addition to playing with the Quad City Symphony (below) and Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestras.  He has performed throughout Europe and North America.  He received his Bachelors in Music and Bachelors in Music Education at Oral Roberts University under Marilyn George and Kari Caldwell, his Masters in Music at the University of Nevada, Reno under John Lenz, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa where he studied under Anthony Arnone and Hannah Holman.  Mr. Price-Brenner is the Cello Studio Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and is Music Director/Conductor for the Quad City Youth Symphony Orchestra (below, rehearsing with Midori).

I don’t see any videos by the quartet on YouTube yet, but maybe that is coming. In the meantime,  you can also follow The Kipperton String Quartet on its Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Kipperton-String-Quartet/141033249306475


Posted in Classical music

Classical music encounter: Meet Sir Colin Davis – knitter, pipe smoker and orchestra conductor extraordinaire.

December 20, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

At 84, the British conductor Sir Colin Davis (below) stays incredibly active on stage and off.

At home in symphonies, concertos and operas, Davis is a prolific producer of recordings and is well-known for his interpretations of many different composers with different styles, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Sibelius and Elgar among many other composers.

His name never seems to get the kind of saturation coverage one identifies with, say, a Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Riccardo Muti or Valery Gergiev, buy that hardly reflects on his outstanding merit that has remained so consistent over so many decades,

In fact, if you are looking for some holiday gift-worthy recordings that may not be new releases, his name serves as a fine guide to choosing a winner — and one that may even be a budget twofer.

But there are sides to Sir Colin you may not know, including the musician who hold strong opinions about his peers.

They emerged recently in some different interviews with The Daily Telegraph and The New York Times

He is so central, I thought you might enjoy getting to know him more personally than perhaps you already do:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturecritics/geoffreynorris/3673375/Sir-Colin-Davis-Knit-one-purl-one-conduct-one.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/arts/music/colin-davis-brings-london-symphony-to-carnegie-hall.html?_r=1


Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Here are more holiday gift-giving guides to the Top Classical Music Recordings of 2011 from The Boson Globe, The Chicago Tribune and The Guardian newspapers plus Madison Magazine and others.

December 19, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

It the past couple weeks, I have been offering readers various gift guides and lists of the top classical recordings of 2011.

Recent offerings have included lists from The New York Times, The New Yorker Magazine‘s Alex Ross, The Washington Post‘s Anne MidgetteNPR, the Chicago Radio station WFMT and the complete classical nominations for the Grammy Awards.

You can find them by just browsing the postings from the past couple weeks – or by putting a key word “Grammys”) or the name of a publication or source into the search engine on this page. Here are two examples, and Sunday’s posted included local ideas and items:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/classical-music-news-here-is-a-complete-list-of-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-54h-annual-grammy-awards-happy-listen-and-shopping/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/classical-music-shopping-continues-so-for-the-weekend-here-are-more-holiday-gift-guides-from-alex-ross-anne-midgette-npr-wfmt-and-others-for-classical-recordings-featuring-the-best-of-2011/

Today I offer some more. This weekend, with less than a week left now before Christmas, more have appeared.

I find that there exists a surprising amount of agreement and consistency among the various lists and critics, even given the vast amount of recording that were issued to mark the bicentennial of the birth of piano virtuoso, composer and teacher Franz Liszt (below).

Here is a list from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Notice how some British groups that are not mentioned in American publications are listed here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/dec/18/hidden-gems-classical-2011-maddocks?newsfeed=true

Here is a list by the well-known critic John von Rhein of The Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/sc-ent-1130-best-classical-recordings-20111203,0,3220202.column

Here is a list from The Boston Globe:

http://bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2011/12/18/classical-music-top-albums/4yo2gwWRrzZRlvLlTXYAAJ/story.html

And finally, here is a list from a colleague, Greg Hettmansberger from Madison Magazine’s blog’s “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/December-2011/Last-Minute-Stocking-Stuffers-for-Classical-Music-Lovers/

I will post more holiday gift suggestions and record reviews as they appear—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

But I also hope individual readers will name specific recordings from the past year that they found outstanding in the COMMENTS section.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music news: Madison offers a lot of local holiday gifts for lovers of classical music.

December 18, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, here we are with only one week to go before Christmas.

And The Ear got a big Christmas gift today – a generous and well written endorsement from Dave Zweifel, my former editor at The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/dave_zweifel/dave-zweifel-s-madison-jacob-stockinger-s-well-tempered-ear/article_30a5fd96-2812-11e1-97e6-0019bb2963f4.html

Anyway, I suspect some of you are starting become a bit frantic about what to get as a gift.

Perhaps I can offer some reassurance and help for those of you who are still shopping for classical music lovers. In the past weeks, I have offered holiday gift guides from The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, NPR and others.

Rest assured, there is still time to buy from local vendors and also on-line sellers.

But start with choosing a really nice holiday card and writing a heart-felt message on it.

As in past years, I highly recommend packaging a CD with tickets to a live performance. Both can generate long-lasting memories, but the essence of making music and listening to music happens at a live event.

You can focus on either the performer or the repertoire. Most of all, I recommend the gift of time and companionship, which I find increasingly matter to people,especially older and younger people who might have mobility issues.

I offer some specific examples:

Pianist Peter Serkin (below) is returning to Madison — specifically to the Wisconsin Union Theater — to perform a solo recital featuring Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations. You can get a CD of the Diabelli’s or Serkin and then add tickets plus a promise to go with and talk about.

Also at the WUT, on Friday, Feb. 24, is an all-Mendelssohn evening with the piano trio of David Finckel, Phillip Setzer and Wu Han.

For more information, visit:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2011_12.html

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will host cellist Amid Peled  in a Boccherini concerto and also perform Haydn’s late Symphony No. 100 on Jan. 13. On Feb. 24, the WCO will host violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky  (below) in the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Beethoven’s famed Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”) also on the program. Those works offer great chances for match-ups.

For details, visit:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks/

The Madison Opera will mark the 75th birthday of composer of Philip Glass (below) with a production of his “Galileo Galilei” on Jan. 26-29, and then performs Rossini’s “Cinderella” on April 27 and 29. Tickets and a recording of that or some other opera or other music by Glass or Rossini would make a great pairing.

For more information, visit:

http://www.madisonopera.org/

You could do the same kind of CD-ticket pairing with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, which Augustin Hadelich (below) will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 20-22, or with pianist Philippe Bianconi in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 on March 30-April 1. (The last performances coincide, unfortunately, with the UW spring break.) You also have the advantage of the MSO offering reduced price holiday tickets for $15 and $40.

For details, go to:

http://madisonsymphony.org/

And don’t forget the affordable, enjoyable and increasingly popular Live in HD satellite broadcasts at Point and Eastgate cinemas by the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustav Dudamel.

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/LiveinHD.aspx

The UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra (below), under Beverly Taylor, will perform Verdi’s operatically dramatic Requiem in Overture Hall on Friday, April 20.

But it is still a bad economy. Are some of those events listed above still too expensive?

There are a lot of “cheap thrills” to be found in the Madison classical scene. That is thanks in large part to the University of Wisconsin’s School of Music, which offers some 300 concerts a year – almost all FREE of charge. And that doesn’t even count free events at Edgewood College or WYSO (the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras) concerts.

The UW offers something for everyone: piano music, string music, wind music, percussion, early music, orchestral music, choral music.

I would single out two history-making events that will be fun to be participate in and that are part of the centennial of the Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer). They feature world premieres of two works commissioned from well-known composers by the Pro Arte: a new piano quintet by William Bolcom on March 24 and a string quartet by John Harbison on April 21.

Those concerts, by the way, are bookended by free lectures given by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in March and British critic Tully Potter in April.

For a listing of UW School of Music events go to www.music.wisc.edu and click on the Events Calendar.

The weekly First Unitarian Society Friday Musicales and “Sunday Live From the Chazen” series (below) also offers constant sources of live and regional chamber music combined with visual and fine art, especially in the Chazen’s stunning new building which has increased exhibit space by double and has brought great works of art out of storage. Of course, if you can’t get there in person, the concerts are broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio.

For a schedule, soon to be updated for the second semester, go to:

http://wpr.org/sal/

It is traditional to also recommend some local CDs. But what exactly is local?

Well, you can find some great overtures and several Mozart piano concerts on recordings by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, respectively. You can also find many CDs by UW faculty at the UW School of Music:

http://apps.music.wisc.edu/cdstore/

I also highly recommend a new CD of holiday music from the much acclaimed Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (below), which usually performs in the summer.

http://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/xmas.html

You can also find recorded music from many other local groups – the Wisconsin Chamber Choir, the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians, early musician Trevor Stephenson and many UW groups  – and a ticket to a live concert would go well with one of them.

But then there are CDs from national and international labels (Naxos is a big one) that feature local artists, especially faculty members such as soprano Julia Faulkner, trombonist Mark Hetzler, pianist Martha Fischer, violinist David Perry (below is his CD of concertos by Ignaz Pleyel) and composer Laura Schwendinger and others. Just go to amazon.com’s classical music section and plug in a name.

This list is very far from exhausting the possibilities for gift ideas. In fact, I hope readers will leave their own ideas in the COMMENTS section.

The more, the merrier – and the more helpful to both giver and recipient.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music poll: New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini says orchestras and audiences are bolder in embracing the modern and the new. So — would you rather hear Schubert or Bartok? Or both?

December 17, 2011
17 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The New York Times’ famed senior classical music critic Anthony Tommasini — who will be in Madison in late March to give FREE  lectures commemorating the Pro Arte Quartet Centennial — last weekend had an excellent review of a concert featuring music by Schubert and Bartok by conductor Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (below) with pianist Andras Schiff, all performing  in Schiff’s “Perspectives Series” at Carnegie Hall.

In addition to a review of that specific concert, Tommasini (below) used the occasion to praise orchestras and – surprise, surprise – audiences for having a new and emboldened appreciation of modern and new music. He went on to give a brief survey or overview of how various big-name ensembles and individuals are doing – how they rate on his scorecard for promoting new music.

I myself wonder if it isn’t a question of great modern or new music versus pedestrian or so-so modern or new music, which isn’t – and shouldn’t be – favored just because it is new. I think that Tommasini is himself a composer, so of course it is understandable that he wants all new music to get a wide ad prominent hearing.

But should the second-rate be given special attention just because it is “new” second-rate? Or should it languish the same way a lot of second-rate music from the 18th and 19th centuries does?

Audiences want to hear, and I suspect musicians want to play, good or great music – no matter what era it comes from — especially if it is performed well. On that score, both Schubert and Bartok have proven track records, and the program that combines Hungarian and Austrian ethnic roots now seems a natural.

In any case, here is a link to the review and commentary by Tommasini:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/arts/music/emboldened-orchestras-embracing-the-new-music.html?n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/T/Tommasini,%20Anthony?ref=anthonytommasini

Would you rather hear an encore by Schubert (below)

Or by Bartok (below)?

Or both?

Leave your preferences and opinions in the COMMENTS section.

Schiff, Fischer and Tommasini all want to hear.

And The Ear also wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Taking the measure of Mahler in Japan.

December 16, 2011
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has a good friend and college classmate, Larry Wells, who teaches mathematics in Tokyo, Japan, and who is an avid fan of Romantic orchestral music, especially Mahler.

Larry, who summers in Madison, recently approached me with the idea of writing about something for the blog about the many Mahler performances he had recently heard in Japan.

I think that Larry sees that Mahler (below) hold a special place in the affection and artistic pleasure of the Japanese – in itself an interesting cultural fact. Certainly, Japan seems to have many capable symphony orchestras and offers richly ambitious concert seasons. That offers more proof that, however questionable its future in its homeland, Western classical music is thriving in Asia.

But in addition to providing insight into the fate of such a vital and quintessentially European composer in an Asian culture, Larry’s commentary strikes me as particularly timely and moving because Mahler seems somehow fitting and appropriate given the suffering and soul-touching events (below) that Japan has experienced in the past year or so — through the horribly destructive tsunami, earthquakes and nuclear radiation leaks.

In short, Japan’s troubles seem of a Mahlerian scope and sorrows. So I of course gave Larry the green light to write his commentary.

So, here it is, if you will, in the form of a New Yorker magazine “A Letter From Paris” kind of piece that usually begins: “A friend writes …”

By Larry Wells

It is the centennial of the death of Mahler, and the Japanese like to commemorate such anniversaries.

In the past few weeks I have hear “Das Lied von der Erde”; the Adagio from the 10th Symphony; the Rückert songs; the Fourth Symphony, and yesterday the Eighth Symphony – all performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra (below) at NHK Hall.

If I wished, I could hear several more performances of “Das Lied von der Erde” over the next months performed by some of the other seven major orchestras in metropolitan Tokyo as well as the First, Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.

I grew up listening to the Leonard Bernstein recordings of the Mahler symphonies recorded in the 1960s.  Mahler’s music has continued to resonate with me.  There is something about the grandiosity bordering on the bombastic, the rhapsodic episodes, the sorrowful adagios, the dissolution of major into minor, and the death rattle of Romanticism that have made me a life-long devotee.

Bernstein’s first recording of the Eighth (below), with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, is still my favorite.

My first live performance was in San Francisco with the SF Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa as part of the festivities to open the new symphony hall. It was thrilling to hear the “universe ring and resound,” as Mahler described his largest-scale work.  But I remember being a little disappointed that the live performance didn’t measure up to the recording.

And so it has gone for years.

Living in Tokyo has allowed me to hear multiple performances of my favorite works. I have heard a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies conducted by Michiyoshi Inoue and the New Japan Philharmonic (below).

Most noteworthy was the first performance in the cycle in which, during the first few measures of the First Symphony, Inoue (below) had gotten himself so wound up (he is of the dance-around-the-podium school of conductors) that he fell off the podium.  He landed on his back while still waving his baton. Realizing the futility of the situation, he then pulled himself up and walked off the stage.

Japanese people do not like unexpected events, and the hall was deathly silent (unlike what I could only image to be the whispers and speculations of an audience elsewhere).  About three minutes later, Inoue (below) re-emerged and started over.

In any event, his performance of the Eighth was otherwise unmemorable as have been a previous performance by Charles Dutoit, two conducted by Gary Bertini — hearing the Eighth on two consecutive days is not a good idea — and one by Eliahu Inbal during which I was seated in the second row – another mistake.

The only performance that has come close to being ideal was by Christian Arming (below) and the New Japan Philharmonic.

All this has led me to speculate that Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony or “Symphony of a Thousand” (below are historic photos of the final rehearsal under Mahler before its world premiere in Munich in 1910) is so vast and the demands, particularly on the soloists, so great that any live performance is going to have its weaknesses, and that the recordings sound so much better simply because the conductor gets to take sections over until they are perfect.  This is hardly an original insight.

(Strangely, after writing the last paragraph, I took a walk and part of the Eighth came up on shuffle on my iPod.  It sounded so immediate and subtle, so unlike anything that could be heard in a large concert hall.)

This performance, too, did not quite measure up.  On the positive side, Dutoit (below) paced the work nicely.  I have always found the beginning of the second part a little slow, but this was graceful and kept my attention. The double choir was excellent, but the children’s chorus was a little too robotic for my taste. The children sang without scores, but also without much finesse.  The orchestra sounded fine – no noticeable horn flubs, which can be a problem with Mahler. The four harps were celestial, the violin solos soaring, and even the mandolin plucked away with panache.  The choir of horns in the back of the hall at the finale was dramatic – and loud.

However, I didn’t come away floating, as I seemingly fruitlessly desire. Part of the problem this time was the demands made upon the eight vocal soloists. The three men particularly (a New Zealander bass, a Japanese baritone, and a German tenor) were unable to fill the vast hall with their forte climactic moments without sounding strained.  The five women were better, particularly American soprano Erin Wall (below), who sang beautifully.

Primarily it is a matter of dynamics.  I have gotten so used to hearing every detail and shade through recordings that a live performance of such a grand work is bound to sound a little muddy.

Additionally, since it is a work that is not performed very often, I suppose that some conductors are flying on one wing since they have not performed it anywhere nearly as often as they might have Beethoven’s Seventh, for example.

So, although I’ve heard more live performances of Mahler’s Eighth than most ordinary mortals, give me Lenny’s recording.


Posted in Classical music

Classical music Q&A: All-night radio host Peter Van De Graaff talks about his programming philosophy, his professional singing career, and his most favorite and least favorite composers.

December 15, 2011
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

By his own count, bass Peter Van De Graaff (below) has appeared in Madison 11 times.

The Ear thinks he is being very modest.

By my count, his voice has been heard in Madison tens of thousands of times.

That is because he is not only a professional singer who has performed often in Handel’s perennially favorite oratorio “Messiah,” which he did a week ago Friday with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell and the Festival Choir of Madison along with the newly formed Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Choir. (For a review in Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking” by my colleague Greg Hettmansberger, see:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/December-2011/Hallelujah-The-Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Delivers-a-True-Christmas-Gift/

Van De Graaff is also the host for up to eight or more hours of the all-night classical music radio program “Classical Music with Peter Van De Graaff,” which is featured on Wisconsin Public Radio and other stations throughout the nation.

For more information about air times and schedules plus playlists, visit:  

http://www.wpr.org/schedule/DisplaySchedule.cfm?iStationID=4 

http://www.classical89.org/about/hosts/vandegraaff/

 For more about Van De Graaff winning the Karl Haas prize for music education (below) at Missouri Southern  State University, visit:

 http://www2.mssu.edu/kxms/karlhaasprize_2010.htm

 The Chicago-based radio host – he works at  The Beethoven Satellite Network at WFMT — and professional in-demand bass recently agreed to an email interview not about his singing career, but about his decades as that soothing and mellifluous radio voice that picks and introduces the classical music you can tune into between evening or late night and early morning.

Can you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

I was born and raised in the Chicago area, attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where I earned a degree in vocal performance. (I’m a bass-baritone.) I began my career at KBYU in 1984 and have been at WFMT since 1988.

How long have you been doing the all-night classical program. and what are the best and worst parts of doing it?

I began as host of the Beethoven Satellite Network in 1989. The best part is … practically everything! Choosing the music, learning about it, listening to it, bringing beautiful things into people’s lives. The worst part is … I really can’t think of any.

How does the radio hosting mix with your singing career? Do you do the show live or is it pre-recorded, and when?

I pre-record the show (in real-time), allowing me to actively pursue my singing career (singing, below left). They are very closely related: using the voice and languages to communicate beautiful music.

When you design a program, do you have special goals in mind for the listener or for yourself?

When I program, I want people to hear things they will likely recognize. But I also want them to discover new things and want to further investigate the lives and times of the composers. I want listeners to be intrigued by the music and programming — not just entertained.

Do you have a general philosophy or approach to doing such a long and late program?

My philosophy is that I am not programming for the person who is asleep. I don’t know of any piece of music that was written to be slept to. I program for people who are awake and engaged.

What are your most favorite eras, genres or forms, kinds of music (piano, choral, string, vocal), composers, works, performers, whatever? And your least favorite too?

 My favorite musical eras are the Baroque and Classical. I love most any form: chamber music, opera, art song, symphonic.

My favorite composers are, in the following order: Haydn (below), Bach, Rameau, Berlioz, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Massenet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wolf. My least favorite composers are Janacek and Bruckner (among those generally considered to be the greatest).

What is the biggest challenge of doing the program?

Being creative with programming every hour and every day after doing this for 23 years. But the riches of classical music are such that it is still possible!


Posted in Classical music

Classical music datebook: Holiday music and winter concerts of early music, chamber music, youth choirs and a community orchestra of amateurs round out the calendar year and first half of the concert season.

December 14, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Most of the biggest classical music groups in the area have already closed out the first half of their concert seasons. Now the holidays and winter breaks are almost here. Gradually but increasingly, the music making will take place in schools, places of worship and private homes, as it should.

Still, some memorable live music concerts can be heard.

FRIDAY

From 12:15 to 1 p.m. the weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society Meeting house, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature the annual carol sing with Linda Warren, harp, and FUS music director Dan Broner (below, greeting listeners), organ. For information, call (608) 233-9774 or visit www.fusmadison.org

Also on Friday at 8 p.m. concert in the First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave., Trevor Stephenson and the Madison Bach Musicians (below) will offer a Holiday Concert. MBM director Stephenson, always fun and informative to listen to, will give a free pre-concert lecture at 7:15 p.m.

The program includes:  “Fall” and “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”; the Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6 no. 8, the “Christmas” Concerto, by Corelli; from J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 61, “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland”; Heinrich Schuetz’s “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her”; and holiday songs and carols.

The singers includes: soprano Rachel Edie Warrick; alto Jessica Timman; tenor Peter Gruett; and bass Nathan Krueger.

The instrumentalists include: baroque violins—Kangwon Kim, Edith Hines, Eleanor Bartsch and Christine Hauptly Annin; baroque violas—Marika Fischer Hoyt and Christine Liu; baroque cellos—Martha Vallon and Anna Steinhoff; and Trevor Stephenson on harpsichord.

Tickets for Madison Bach Musicians concerts can be purchased in advance or at the door. 
Advance ticket prices are $20 for general admission and $15 students/seniors (over 65).

Tickets at the door are $25 General, $20 Students/Seniors. CASH OR CHECKS ONLY. Checks should be made payable to Madison Bach Musicians.

You can find more information at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

SUNDAY

Before a two-week holiday intermission with no live performances, “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will wrap up the first semester.

From 12:30 to 2 p.m., in Brittingham Gallery Number III at the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave., the highly acclaimed Arcos Trio, which formed in 2005, will perform. The piano trio has pursued a mission to present an expanded canon of standard piano trio repertoire. This commitment has been realized by performing and recording less known works along with the traditional classical literature and music of our own time.

In particular, the Arcos Trio programs often emphasize works by women composers or composers whose music bridges classical and popular boundaries.

This Sunday they will be premiering the world premiere of the Piano Trio No. 4 “La Noche” by Roberto Sierra (below), which they commissioned. Funded by an Artistic Excellence grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Arcos Trio is presenting a series of Latin American chamber music concerts and festivals in Wisconsin, Michigan and Virginia and recording Sunday’s program on the Centaur Records label.

Their project received collaborative financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fox Valley Community Arts Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin.

Members of the Chazen Museum of Art or Wisconsin Public Radio can call ahead and reserve seats for Sunday Afternoon Live performances. Seating is limited. All reservations must be made Monday through Friday before the concert and claimed by 12:20 p.m. on the day of the performance. For more information or to learn how to become a museum member, contact the Chazen Museum at (608) 263-2246.

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

Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen is a free, weekly chamber music series presented by the Chazen Museum of Art and Wisconsin Public Radio, with the cooperation of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Music.

The series, hosted by music commentator Lori Skelton, is broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio stations WERN, 88.7 Madison; WHRM, 90.9 Wausau; WPNE, 89.3 Green Bay; WUEC, 89.7 Eau Claire; WVSS, 90.7 Menomonie; WHSA, 89.9 Brule; WGTD, 91.1 Kenosha; WLSU, 88.9 LaCrosse; and WHND, 89.7 Sister Bay. Generous support for the series is provided by individual donations to the Chazen Museum of Art and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Also on Sunday, starting at 1 p.m., the Madison Youth Choirs (below) will perform a three-part program of “Visions, Dreams and Tales” with guest artist Tony Memmel.

The programs are as follows: 1 p.m. featuring MYC’s Cantilena, Cantabile, and Ragazzi choirs; 4 p.m. featuring MYC’s Purcell, Britten, and Holst choirs (boychoirs); 7 p.m. featuring MYC’s Choraliers, Con Gioia, and Capriccio choirs.

The concerts will feature all nine of MYC’s performing choirs, more than 325 young singers, ages 7-18, from throughout Dane County and surrounding areas.

All concerts are at the Middleton-Cross Plains Area Performing Arts Center (at bottom), 2100 Bristol Street, Middleton, Wisconsin, next to Middleton High School.

Tickets are $9 in advance (plus processing fee), $12 at the door and free for children under 7.

Advance tickets may be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets at www.madisonyouthchoirs.org

A press release reads: “Visions, Dreams, and Tales That Inspire” will be the culminating event of our semester-long work with amazing guest artist Tony Memmel (www.tonymemmel.com). Born without his left forearm, Tony taught himself to play the guitar, piano, and harmonica. His music is thoughtful, well-crafted, and inspiring.

The concerts will feature selections by Memmel, both solo and combined with the choirs, as well as music by Binchois, Vaughan Williams, Persichetti, Fauré, Legrenzi, a new work by Scott Gendel (a UW-Madison graduate, below), and much more.

Visions, Dreams, and Tales that Inspire is generously supported by Diane Endres Ballweg, with additional support provided by Wisconsin Arts Board, Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, and Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission.

About Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Madison Youth Choirs strives to create a community of young musicians dedicated to musical excellence through which we inspire enjoyment, enhance education, and nurture personal, musical, and social development, by the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature.

To this end, we focus on the process and provide singers a rich rehearsal experience where thoughtful discussion and activities lead to larger connections and a music education that becomes a springboard for understanding the world.

WEDNESDAY DEC. 21

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below), under the baton of Steve Kurr, will present its Holiday Concert on Wednesday at 7:30 at the Middleton Performing Arts Center. All students and retirement home residents are admitted FREE and general admission is $10.  Tickets are available at Willy St. Coop West and at the door.

The concert, which is the first of three concerts featuring local rising stars in the classical music world, will feature soprano Emily Birsan (below), currently performing with Lyric Opera in Chicago. She will sing arias from operas in which she has played major roles. The orchestra will play some well-known orchestral works and some holiday favorites.

The program includes: Rossini’s “La Scala di Seta”; Walteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz”; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Mozart’s “Come Scoglio”; Donizetti’s “Regnava nel silenzio” and Puccini’s “O, Mio Babbino Caro.”

The program concludes with some holiday favorites.

Here is a bio of local favorite Emily Birsan:

“Described as having a “delectable tone and wonderfully sensitive stylishness and musicianship” Emily is a new member of the Ryan Opera Center of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She will sing Stella in “The Tales of Hoffman” and Xenia in “Boris Godunov,” as well as cover several roles in the Lyric’s 2011-2012 season.

“Emily received her graduate degree in Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and her undergraduate degree from Lawrence Conservatory. Emily most recently won the 2010 Wisconsin District Metropolitan Opera Competition and the 2011 Union League Club of Chicago Women’s Scholarship Winner in Voice. Emily made her professional debut as Barbarina in Madison Opera’s production of “Le Nozze di Figaro.”


Posted in Classical music

Classical music review: The University of Wisconsin Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra unwrap welcome holiday gifts of contemporary music that is both accessible and enjoyable.

December 13, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are always a big season for music, especially for vocal music, as I recently commented in in another post.

Handel’s “Messiah” and J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are probably the most famous examples, to say nothing of instrumental works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Gabrieli and others. (Surely the prolific Telemann also wrote some kind of holiday music, though I do not know of specific titles.)

But that means that, musically,  this can also be The Silly Season.

By that, I mean it is the time when we start hearing string quartet arrangements of familiar Christmas carols and the like – as if classical music doesn’t have enough holiday-themed music to choose from.

So I offer a hearty holiday thanks to University of Wisconsin choral director Beverly Taylor (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and to the UW Choral Union and UW Chamber Orchestra plus the two soloists she led.

This past weekend those combined forces (below), under Taylor’s capable leadership, offered a program that was unusual in several ways.

For one, it did not feature music normally associated with the holidays, but instead vocal music by four modern and contemporary composers three of whom are still living and working.

For another, it featured music that, to my knowledge, has never before been performed by the UW Choral Union, which usually ends up re-visiting more well-known Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern choral works.

Then too, the music offered shelter and sanctuary from the typical holiday atmosphere, which seems increasingly to combine frenetic festiveness, manic activity, established notions of how to celebrate and just plain old crass commercialism.

It was, in short, a risky strategy. But it paid off.

That is not to say that all of the four works – two long ones and two short ones – were equally successful. But the concert was nonetheless a welcome break from routine and a welcome departure from holiday predictability. The singing and instrumental playing overall were rich and captivating. 

The 90-minute concert opened with a very short brass and choral fanfare, “O Clap Your Hands” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below). It was a good and energetic curtain-raiser, done well and convincingly. And by contrast it set up the rest of the program.

The big work on the first half was “Evensong: Of Love and Angels” by Dominick Argento (below, born 1927). It was written as a tribute to his wife, who died in 2006, and was commissioned by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C, which gave the work its world premiere to mark the cathedral’s 100th anniversary.

Argento’s serious and even somber work is structured to include a little bit of everything, from a sermon and reading to the lighting of candles. It used texts in Latin and English, words from the Bible and from the Book of Common Prayer. It featured ensemble work, but also solos by the orchestra, choir and soloists.

In fact, the variety of the piece seemed to me to be one of its flaws. The work never quite made up its mind what it wanted to be or say – except for having too many banalities and clichés about the importance of love. It never seemed to develop a line or arc that carried the listener through it. The work constantly seemed to promise something moving and memorable, and then failed to deliver the goods. It had some beautiful moments coupled to some very long and boring stretches that seemed devoted to lateral drift rather than making a musical or textual point. I am not much one for angels, but much of this piece could have used the help of one.

Mind you, I don’t blame the chorus and orchestra. Both seemed to get into the piece and give it all they had. The soloists were quite good, but they seemed somewhat miscast. Against the 154-voice chorus and 41-piece orchestra, they simply seemed outclassed. The two soloists, Kyeol Lee and Natalie DeMaioribus, displayed fine enough voices and expressive tone, but scale was lacking. The singers needed more oomph – more volume and better diction– to be as expressive as they clearly wished to be and the piece wanted them to be. The narrator David Susan, however, did a fine job of projecting his recited reading.

The second half of the concert opened with “Water Night” by Eric Whitacre (below), a young American composer born in 1970 who is fast building a major reputation.

In this work, the chorus and orchestra were led by the graduate assistant conductor Russell Adrian (below), who seemed quite capable and clearly has a promising future ahead of him.

I have one major criticism. The engaging text is a translated poem by the Mexican Nobel Prize winning writer Octavio Paz (below). The poem is a lyrical poem or an elegy, not an epic. So it demanded more intimacy than it received. I found the combined forces a bit too overwhelming, and that mismatch was only heightened by the loudness and strong dynamic contrasts. The work needed to be quieter and more subtly textured to give the impression of a smaller group.

Clearly the stand-out of the concert was the concluding work, the famous and popular “Lux Aeterna” by the American composer Morten Lauridsen (below, b. 1943, receiving the National for the Arts from President George W. Bush).

In opposition to the Argento, this work had a constant arc or line of directed energy that captured the listener’s attention and held it until the end. Using Latin, it established a calming and soothing tone, an entrancing and beautiful elegy that embraced you, enfolded you in sound. It shared much of the historically backward-looking appeal of works by such popular contemporary composers as Arvo Part, John Tavener and John Rutter.

One wonders; Does working in vocal music keep contemporary composers closer to mainstream traditions, to melodies and harmonies that resonate more with the average listener?

Conductor Taylor has compared the Lauridsen work to the Requiem by Faure, and she is not wrong. Another listener compared it to Aaron Copland, and one could hear those similarities too, especially in the spacious open chords and close harmonies.

But at no point in the concert of contemporary music did one find the music inaccessible, perplexing or ugly. It reminded one that there are composers working today who want to be understood and appreciated by ordinary listeners, and not just by other musicians.

That lesson about modern and contemporary music is no small gift, holiday or otherwise, on the part of Taylor, the campus and community chorus and the instrumental players.

In fact, as a music critic I can hardly think of a more appropriate or welcome holiday gift than the notion that modern and contemporary music deserves the same kind of serious attention from performers and audiences that the more tried-and-true classics receive.  

If you want to see what another critic heard in this concert, visit this link to a review by John W. Barker (below) of Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=35429

Did you hear the UW Choral Union concert?

What did you think of the music?

Of the performance?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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