The Well-Tempered Ear

What is the best classical music to write by?

March 31, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

A lot of writers like to write in silence.

But writing is such a solitary activity — like painting or creating art — that a lot of writers also like to write with music playing. It seems somehow less lonely, and sometimes even motivational.

Some writers prefer pop or rock or jazz.

But mostly I hear about writers listening to classical music.

I remember reading an interview with Edmund White (below), the writer of award-winning fiction, biographies and memoirs. An avowed, even devout Francophile, he said he liked to write to chamber music by Debussy, especially the cello sonata. As someone who loves also the chamber music of both Debussy (particularly the String Quartet and the Violin Sonata) and Ravel, I understand that.

I also recall Mary Gordon (below, in a photo by David Shankbone), who said in an interview with The New York Times that she liked to listen to Classical piano sonatas and string quartets, though it wasn’t clear whether that was just to warm up or actually to write by.

Myself, I am more predictable and probably more mainstream. Occasionally I wander into Classicism (especially Haydn and Mozart) and Romanticism. But generally I find nothing better to write by than Baroque music.

My preference is for J.S. Bach – especially his French and English Suites, his partitas, and his Inventions and Sinfonias over the 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier. I love the rushing sound and cascades of notes of the solo keyboard music.

Bach means brook.

You might even say torrent.

What a well-named composer, no? The French writer Colette (below, in 1940 photo from the Getty Images) had good reason to describe Bach’s music as that “heavenly sewing machine.” I wonder: Did she listen to Bach while writing?

I wonder if, given the tapping of keyboard clicks and clacks, she might today use the term “word processor,” or at least agree to its substitution?

Anyway, Bach (below) works for me in adding momentum and increasing productivity, and also in allowing me to pay attention to it and then to turn away from it and then come back to it. You can just slip in and out of the dream, so to say.

Bach’s keyboard and violin concertos also work well, as do Vivaldi’s many string concertos. But the solo violin and cello works of Bach aren’t as effective I find, probably because they are too intense.

I also like the solo keyboard suites and sonatas of Handel and Scarlatti for the same reason – on the piano but NOT on the harpsichord which has too much distracting twang for me – though the more orchestrated works don’t work as well.

And the very worst for me is the voice – solo songs or choral works or opera. I love Schubert, but I simply cannot write, or write well, when someone else is saying words. That’s logical, don’t you think?

Then there are people who say they like the piano works by Chopin (below) to write by. I find Chopin’s music – like that of Schumann and Brahms – just too condensed and concise, lyrical and compelling, to do that. But here is a link to that writer:

http://www.nancywilliamspiano.com/2012/03/12/classical-piano-music-to-write-by/

But everyone, and every writer, is different. And a lot of it, I suppose is what you get used to.

The bottom line is: I have to like the music – but not too much. When I am writing, music often acts like the guy pounding on the drums in a slave galley, keeping beat and time. Its rhythm and flow keep me on task.

But whatever the music is, it must have clarity, similarity and repeatability. It must allow me to true in and tune out repeatedly.

What music do you like best when you write?

Does the music change with kind of writing – letters, journals, non-fiction, poetry, fiction?

I’d love to hear some specific tips and experiences and suggestions, or stories about yourself and other writers.


Classical music Q&A: Violinist Naha Greenholtz talks about being the new concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and performing Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” this weekend.

March 30, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might even say that this weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra will offer an ambitious program featuring not one but TWO soloists.

The program includes American composer Kevin Puts’ “Inspiring Beethoven”; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, which is famous for the interplay between the piano and the orchestra and which will feature the return of prize-winning French pianist Philippe Bianconi.

But also on the program is Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) with major solos by the new MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below), who started in her post at the beginning of this season and who was recently featured on the cover of “Symphony” magazine in a  story about six new concertmasters.

Performances are in Overture Hall on tonight, Friday night, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $13.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Or visit:

http://madisonsymphony.org/singletickets

For more information about the concert and soloists, including videos, videos, visit the MSO at :

http://madisonsymphony.org/bianconi

To read or download program notes by J. Michael Allsen, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1112/7.Mar12.html

Greenholtz, who keeps a very busy schedule, recently gave The Ear an email interview:

What special skills and responsibilities did you learn in concertmaster school to do that other violinists in the orchestra do not have to do?

The concertmaster’s primary responsibility, beyond the obvious — playing the first violin parts and all solos — is to help facilitate a smooth rehearsal process.  While there is some historical precedent for the concertmaster’s “jurisdiction” to be more comprehensive and orchestra-wide, the standard in modern orchestras has limited that role to oversight of the strings generally, with special emphasis on the violin section (below).

I’ll give two ordinary examples of what I mean: Say a particular conductor is not a string player. When they make a musical comment that requires something specific from the strings, perhaps a certain “color” of sound or a particular kind of articulation or phrasing, then that person often will defer to the concertmaster for a solution. In these instances, the concertmaster then will speak up and address the group, offering specific technical advice as to how the strings can achieve this goal.

Another example: In a professional orchestra rehearsal time in any given week is limited to only a few hours, so every second counts.  Sometimes in the heat of battle, the conductor might only have time to address larger scale issues at the expense of some smaller detail-like stuff like ensemble accuracy, intonation, and things like this.  As a concertmaster, one must always be ready fill in these gaps, cleaning up the little imperfections whenever possible so the conductor can focus on the big picture.

Walking this line between being both a leader and also an equal member of the section is always challenging. But the position has obvious artistic rewards and so the effort (and stress) is really worth it.

How has your first season gone with the MSO? Do you have an opinion of Madison and its audiences? 

I should start by saying that I just love Madison. I’m preaching to the choir, I know, but it really is a gem of a city with an exciting and vibrant music scene.  It never ceases to amaze me that the MSO can do triple performances on any given weekend and nearly fill the house for each show.  Many larger market cities cannot make this claim.

This audience clearly loves its orchestra and we at the Madison Symphony Orchestra are lucky to have such knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans.  Again, not every orchestra has this!  Their energy and love of the music really bring out the best from the group.

As for the orchestra, I consider myself very fortunate to have such dedicated and skillful colleagues. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, meeting so many lovely musicians and of course working with John DeMain (below) who is such a charismatic leader and artist. I have felt “at home” here from the first day.

What can you tell us about Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and especially your role as a soloist in it? Was it part of the tryout for your position? Can you tell us something about the piece and what it means to you or what the audience should listen for? 

This really is the premiere concertmaster solo as far as I’m concerned and, yes, it was part of my audition.  In fact I’ve rarely taken a concertmaster audition where it was not asked!  It’s really a violinist’s dream – Strauss (below) gives so many colorful descriptors to the performer like “Hypocritically Languishing,” “Sweet and Sentimental,” “Naggingly,” etc.  He wrote this solo to musically depict his wife and to show her many moods.

My teacher from the Concertmaster Academy Bill Preucil (below right, with Cleveland Symphony Orchestra conductor Franz Welser Moest on the left) once told me, “when I play this spot I think of that look on my 11-year-old daughter’s face when she’s about to ask for something expensive.” The solo is just filled with such dramatic opportunities, it’s almost like acting. The composer really invites the performer to explore these many moods and to indulge in the whole range of expression the music requires, including an explosive “temper tantrum” where Strauss says to get ever “Faster and Angrier.”  After preparing the solo for auditions over the last few years, it’s exciting to now perform it with orchestra.

Next season you will solo in the Violin Concerto by Mendelssohn (below). What can you tell is about that work and any others in which you will play a special role? 

To be honest, I haven’t looked that far ahead yet, so the specific orchestral repertoire is still slightly off my radar.  The Mendelssohn, of course, will be a blast.  Everyone knows that violinists are positively spoiled with great repertoire, but even for us, Mendelssohn’s concerto stands out as a special treasure.  It really is one of the greatest concerti ever written for any instrument.

Also, it has special significance to me as it was the first solo concerto I played with orchestra, when I made my debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra when I was 14.  It has been over 10 years since then, so I’m looking forward to re-learning it as an adult.  And of course working with John on it will be a delight. He is always a wonderful and sensitive concerto accompanist.


Classical music news flash: Allan Naplan, former general director of the Madison Opera, resigns after one year as president and general director of the Minnesota Opera

March 29, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

After what was, by all measures and accounts, a very successful six-season tenure at the Madison Opera, general director Allan Naplan (below) was recruited by the much larger Minnesota Opera to be its president and general director.

But now, after only one year on the job, Naplan has resigned.

No reason for his resignation has been given in the public accounts so far.

But The Ear suspects artistic differences might have something to do with it, as could fundraising, budget  or financial problems.

Or maybe Naplan was recruited for a much bigger job opportunity. (I found him to be both gifted and congenial, and suggested in a story that he could well be bound for an even bigger big city and an even bigger big opera company.)

Naplan had strong ideas about opera, especially given his background as a composer, a professional touring baritone and director of artistic administration at the Pittsburgh Opera before he came to Madison to take over from Ann Stanke, who died last spring.

Here is a link to the story:

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/state-of-the-arts/archive/2012/03/minnesota-opera-president-allan-naplan-resigns.shtml

If you know any more information about this art news event, The Ear would love to hear.

Leave your remark in the COMMENTS section.


Classical music review: UW”s Pro Arte Quartet wows the crowd in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2.

March 29, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

First things first: For the sake of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I am a member of the Pro Arte Quartet’s centennial committee. Please keep that in mind as you read the following review.

There was The New York Times’ acclaimed senior music critic Anthony Tommasini (below right) talking about the importance and excitement of programming new music as he also praised the deeply American eclecticism of composer William Bolcom (below left) to Bolcom’s face.

And then on the same stage shortly later came the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, given Saturday night at a free community concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor (below).

The nearly full house of about 1,000 greeted the work with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Was it because of the music? Or was it because of the history-making event by the “home team”? Hard to tell, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

But they stood and cheered the Pro Arte Quartet, which this season is celebrating its centennial as the longest lived, still active quartet in history.

The concert started with an opening tribute to famed geneticist and Pro Arte supporter James Crow, who died in January. Standing alone on the big stage, Pro Arte violist Sally Chisholm performed Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola. It fit the occasion. It was commissioned by Pro Arte violist Germain Prevost to pay homage to Alphonse Onnou, the group’s founding first violinist and was premiered in Madison in 1944 at Edgewood College with Stravinsky present.

The concert officially opened with the Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” or “Slow Movement,” a beautiful, rich and late Romantic work that was composed in 1905 and premiered in 1962, one that drew you into it at one.

Then came Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7, another work commissioned by and then premiered by the Pro Arte String Quartet in 1925. Its plucky pizzicato passages and clear textures plus some upbeat music hall-like tunes gave it a certain French lightness that balanced the thicker texture of the Webern. Together, they made a perfect package.

Then came Bolcom’s piano quintet.

The Bolcom work received a rousing, energetic performance. This is a dark and dynamic work with virtuosic passages, especially for the piano, and a lot of parts talking to each other  – and Taylor brought his part off brilliantly. But if you were looking for the kind of tuneful, earlier ragtime and cabaret music, more lyrical, easy-going and elegiac, that you find in Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost” and similar works, you were probably a bit disappointed or let down.

The work by Bolcom (below) seemed thoroughly competent and professional, very good but not great. It did not seem especially inspired, even on a second hearing over the radio. I walked out of the hall and couldn’t recall a passage that made me want to hear it again right away. That is not a good sign that a contemporary masterpiece is at hand.

Of course Time will have the final say, and I hope I am wrong. I have spoken to professional musicians who say I am wrong and who are more positive about its future. And my own track record with contemporary music is not great. The Bolcom quintet had some beautiful and dramatic movements, and the second movement proved the most moving.

Maybe Bolcom’s piano quintet will indeed enjoy a long shelf life and many repeat performances soon. But my ears said don’t count on it, and my thoughts told me it is easier to create an event than it is to create great music.

I hope we get to read what Tommasini thought, given his forceful advocacy of new music and eclecticism.

The concert concluded with Mozart’s great String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, with guest violist Samuel Rhodes (below, with fellow violist Sally Chisholm) of the Julliard String Quartet. Rhodes is a frequent and favorite guest artist of the quartet and he seems right at home whenever he sits in.

I have heard, and really like, a more aggressive and muscular Mozart (below), a more dramatic or even operatic Mozart that is edgy within limits and good taste.

So I wondered if perhaps if some of my small letdown came from being the familiar Mozart being comparatively under-rehearsed with all the attention going to the new Bolcom score and maybe even the unfamiliar and difficult Milhaud.

Or maybe the music itself seemed a bit subdued and less forthright because of the context: The Mozart lacks the piercing and spiky percussiveness of the piano in the Bolcom and the pluckiness of the strings of the Milhaud.

Or maybe the quartet was just a bit tired from all the events and playing that led up to the concert.

Or maybe, just maybe, that is how the various players like their Mozart.

After all, it was elegant and lyrical Mozart all the same, beautiful Mozart, and it was refreshing to hear the work performed live. Mozart’s string quintets are among the most unjustly programmed chamber music works we have. And the audience sure liked it, giving it another standing ovation (below).

All in all, it was a long and successful afternoon and evening event that lasted a good seven hours. It started with Tommasini’s lecture on the state of contemporary music at 3; then people adjourned for cocktails and dinner that reunited past member the Pro Arte, including former first violinist Norman Paulu (below top) and the former husband-and-wife team of violist and second violinist Richard and Martha Blum (below middle).

Then came an engaging pre-concert discussion with comoser Bolcom and critic Tommasini that was moderated by UW pianist Todd Welbourne; then came the concert; and then the dessert reception. It was quite the historic arts event, all free and well attended and very well received.

Here are links to two other reviews:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/pro-arte-premieres-stormy-bolcom-quintet/article_65c8c108-7686-11e1-96be-001871e3ce6c.html

And here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2012/Pro-Arte-Party-Resumes-with-Expanded-Guest-List/

The final of the four FREE centennial concerts and commissions this season will be in Mills Hall on Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. It features the world premiere of John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5, composed in 10 short movements. Also featured will be quartets by Haydn (Op. 54, No. 2 in C major) and Cesar Franck, plus a lecture by British critic Tully Potter, a dinner at the Chazen Museum of Art; and a pre-concert interview with British musicologist and critic Tully Potter and composer Harbison. Be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks.

For more information, go to www.proartequartet.org


Are cellists the most friendly and sociable players in classical music?

March 28, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

I like festivals.

I also like cellists.

Combine the two, and you have a good thing.

A very good thing.

Just ask, if you could, that most famous cellist and festival founder  of all, Pablo Casals (below), the man who rediscovered and rehabilitated the solo cello suites of J.S. Bach.

But is the old story about cellists being the most friendly and sociable (or is it social?) of all instrument players in classical music true?

Singers might be even more social, especially given the collaborative nature of opera and choral singing.

But I have indeed found that it is very often the cellists who speak for string quartets. Locally, I have spoken with cellists Parry Karp (below), Karl Lavine, Janet Greive, Sarah Schaffer and Benjamin Whitcomb, among others. And the rule holds up.

All the cellists I have interviewed as individuals or orchestra players are also a pleasure to deal with. They often have hearty laughs and a whimsical sense of fun.

They also very often seem to preserve a sense of proportion and to act as the peacemakers in a group.

And in my experience even solo cellists like Alisa Weilerstein, David Finckel and Yo-Yo Ma (below) are gracious, outgoing and sociable.

What is it about the cello and cellists that make them that way?

Could it be because the cello’s tone is so close to the human voice?

Could it be that you learn to offer help to and accept help from others when you lug around a big instrument and pay for a second plane seat on the airplane?

Could it be you feel especially close and human as a musician when you wrap your legs around your instrument?

Could it be the kind of music, very songful and lyrical music, that cellists so often play?

Could it be all of the above, or many of the above in some combination?

Well, it turns out that my own personal impressions are not just mine.

Take a look at the following stories.

The first examines the inaugural First Piatigorsky Cello Festival in Los Angeles, overseen by cellist Ralph Kirschbaum (below), who performed a few seasons ago with the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/arts/music/piatigorsky-international-cello-festival-at-walt-disney-concert-hall.html

More to the point, using the festival’s collaborative celebration of J.S. Bach’s 327th birthday last Wednesday, the second story takes a closer look at the reputation cellists have for being amiable.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/arts/music/piatigorsky-international-cello-festival-in-los-angeles.html


Classical music news: Former Vice-President Dick Cheney might want to listen to classical music – especially Verdi or Mozart — after his recent heart transplant, according to Japanese researchers.

March 27, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you have no doubt heard, former Vice President Dick Cheney (below) had a heart transplant over the weekend.

The operation was not unexpected, given Cheney’s very long history of cardiac problems. Apparently, he had been on the waiting list for 20 months, while the average waiting time in Washington, D.C., is nine months.

Perhaps the transplant was less expected, given Cheney age. He is 71, after all, and many guidelines suggest that older people over 65 don’t weather either the surgery or the recovery as well as younger people do. They also have a less successful with the powerful drugs that prevent rejection. But Cheney (below) has the reputation of being a Tough Guy.

Do you think being a former Vice-President had anything to do with it? Or maybe being immensely rich, as the former head of the oil company Halliburton?

One suspects not and hopes not. One suspects that it really was a decision left to medical authorities relying on science and not politics on money. At least, one hopes that is the case — and news stories suggest that it is. As the Baby Boomers age, more will have organ transplants later in life.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57404411-10391704/dick-cheneys-heart-transplant-at-71-special-treatment/

Still, Cheney might want to listen to some of his favorite classical music, according to new research from Japanese scientists. That research suggests listening to classical music betters that chances of recovering from a heart transplant — at least in mice, if not in men.

Here are links to a couple of stories:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2012/mar/26/classical-music-helps-mice-recover-heart-transplants/

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21622-classical-music-affects-heart-transplants.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news

http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=classical-music-slows-mice-transpla-12-03-23

http://www.miller-mccune.com/health/classical-music-boosts-heart-transplant-survival-in-mice-40561/

The research suggests that the music of Verdi (below) and Mozart – but probably NOT their Requiems — had the best results, perhaps because of the harmonies.

What pieces of classical music — by Verdi, Mozart or anyone else since I myself find Faure’s music especially restorative and calming — do you think the recuperating Cheney should listen to?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music Q&A: French pianist Philippe Bianconi explains why his favorite Beethoven piano concerto is No. 4 – which he performs this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and conductor John DeMain.

March 26, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the acclaimed French pianist Philippe Bianconi, who took a silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Competition in 1985, returns to Madison to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The program includes American composer Kevin Puts’ “Inspiring Beethoven”; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, which is famous for the interplay between the piano and the orchestra; and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) with solos by the new MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below).

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $13.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Or visit:

http://madisonsymphony.org/singletickets

For more information about the concert and soloists, including videos, videos, visit the MSO at :

http://madisonsymphony.org/bianconi

To read or download program notes by J. Michael Allsen, visit:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1112/7.Mar12.html

Bianconi, who last turned in an enthralling, rhapsodic performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” two years ago with the MSO, and who just started a U.S. tour, recently gave The Ear an email interview:

Many consider Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 the best of his five piano concertos and perhaps the greatest piano concerto ever composed. Why do you think that is, and what speaks to the public so strongly about it?

Well, I also know a lot of people whose favorite Beethoven piano concerto is No. 5, the so-called “Emperor.” The Fifth is a larger concerto in scope. It is really majestic and has more brilliant virtuosity. And it has a gorgeous slow movement too. I can see why many people love it: It is a great piece!

But No. 4 is a more intimate concerto and a very poetic piece. (See the video at bottom.) The poetry you find in the slow movement of No. 5 pervades the entire Fourth, from beginning to end. The themes have such a melodic quality that really touches the heart.

It does have its share of virtuosity, but most of the time it is not virtuosity per se. Most of the runs and arpeggios are much more integrated into the orchestral texture. They are like arabesques floating around the main themes played by the orchestra, which gives the piece its unique luminous quality. I guess people who favor more intimate, chamber music-like concertos over bombastic pieces prefer No. 4 of course.

How do you yourself place it among other piano concertos and Beethoven’s work in general?

It is definitely my favorite Beethoven concerto for the reasons I explained above. Even though I love Nos. 1, 3 and 5 for different reasons, No. 4 is the one that touches me the most.

There is also the short but incredible slow movement with its opposition between the ruthless statements of the strings and the pleading cantilena of the piano.

There are so many beautiful moments in this piece, and one of my favorites is the end of the first movement after the cadenza, when the orchestra comes back: to me this is some of the most poetic and soothing music ever written.

I love the big romantic concertos like Rachmaninoff’s, but I place them in a different category. I place the Fourth by Beethoven (below) among the most beautiful concertos ever written, together with the late Mozart concertos, Schumann A minor and the two Brahms concertos.

This is a return appearance for you in Madison. What do you want to say about playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain and about Madison audiences?

This is my fourth appearance with the Madison Symphony and my third time with John DeMain (below).

I feel like I have developed a special relationship over the years with that orchestra and I’m always very excited to come back. And I’ve always received a very warm and enthusiastic welcome from the audience.

From the very first time, I have been impressed with the quality of the orchestra and I love working with John DeMain. He is the kind of conductor who makes a soloist feel very secure and he is such a wonderful musician. I am so looking forward to playing this magnificent concerto with him.

Do you know the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, and do you prefer No. 4 or No. 5?

How do you rank No. 4 among Beethoven’s five piano concertos and among all piano concertos?

What do especially like about it?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: Do pets respond to music? Yes, but what kind of music depends on the animal, says a University of Wisconsin animal psychologist.

March 25, 2012
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ALERT: Word has reached The Ear of a FREE student concert, with faculty participants, worth attending today. At 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (below) and friends will present a full performance of George Crumb‘s “American Songbook 5: Voices From a Forgotten World.”  This is the 5th installment of Crumb’s American Songbook Series, which is a seven-volume collection of American folk songs, set to Crumb’s unique and colorful orchestration.  The ensemble features two vocalists, a pianist and four percussionists, together playing over 100 instruments.

By Jacob Stockinger

Remember the so-called Mozart Effect on babies’ intelligence? Well, that pseudo-science or pop psychology seems recently to have been pretty well debunked and discredited.

But what about animals and music?

For many years, I have sworn that my cat Rosie (below) loves music, just as I do, especially piano music.

Rosie is a sweet and pretty tabby cat, and she seems to come over by the piano and sit down or lie down and roll over, or even jump onto my lap while I am playing or whenever I start practicing.

It seems to happen especially whenever I am playing Bach, Schubert or Chopin.

So I wondered: Is it me and the fact she identifies the piano sound with my presence, the same way Pavlov’s dogs responded to bells? Or is it the music?

Well, it is probably some of each, says Charles T. Snowden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and animal psychologist.

Among his findings are that animals show some breed specificity in the music they prefer. That is, they follow their own species’ taste or preference rather than their owner’s taste or preference. That has led one entrepreneurial person even to market songs for cats, downloadable for $1.99 each (Meow-w-w-!).

But he also found that dogs respond with relaxation to classical music while heavy metal makes them more agitated.

Well is that the music or the oppressive sound? After all, I too — like most humans, I bet — become more agitated when listening to heavy metal, which seems intended deliberately to agitate the listener.

Here are some links to stories about research on pets and music:

http://news.discovery.com/animals/animals-music-120320.html

http://www.livescience.com/19156-animal-psychologists-discover-music-pets-prefer.html

http://www.petside.com/article/animal-psychologists-discover-pets-prefer-their-own-music

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46789825/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.T2y6uXjH1UQ

Some of the findings also seem to support my theory that Rosie is bothered by string instruments—especially high-pitched Baroque violins with GUT strings. I always thinks she objects to other animals, maybe even her ancestors, being used that way for human amusement and entertainment.

But maybe that is anthropomorphizing too much.

Based on his research, I suspect Snowden would probably say it is the high pitch and the fast tempo of early string music that really get to her.

Oh well, more enlightenment and obfuscation are sure to follow.

How do you pets react to music and what kid of music?

Do you have pet and music story to share?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: To mark J.S. Bach’s 327th birthday, NPR spends a full week examining the “Goldberg” Variations from Handel to Hannibal Lecter. It is an astounding work of appreciation and analysis.

March 24, 2012
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A REMINDER ALERT: The UW Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) will perform a FREE and UNTICKETED community concert to mark its centennial tonight at 8 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater. They will be joined by guest pianist Christopher Taylor and Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2 as well as Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7, Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” and Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K. 516. The concert is preceded by a free lecture on the state of classical music today at 3 p.m. in the WUT New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini and then a pre-concert interview with Bolcom and Tommasini at 7 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, on Friday, I posted a review of Madison’s Bach Around the Clock 3, held last Saturday from noon to midnight by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Pres House. It featured many student, amateur and professional performers.

But National Public Radio has outdone me and really marked Bach’s birthday, which was actually on Wednesday.

All this past week has been devoted to the “Goldberg” Variations.

Once the massive work of theme-and-variations was an esoteric rarity. Now it is iconic – nothing less than Apple founder Steve Jobs’ favorite work by his favorite composer.

So NPR invited several very well known experts and performers to discuss and play the Goldbergs. They include famed musicologist and Bach biography Christoph Wolff of Harvard and Leipzig, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and pianist-blogger Jeremy Denk (below), who made several major contributions, as well as a pianist-composer Lara Downes, who has composed and recorded “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldbergs.”

All is all, it is an incredibly comprehensive tutorial on this wonderful world. It examines the origins of the music. It asks whether the work is best heard on the harpsichord or modern piano. It explores pioneering performances of them by Wanda Landowska and Glenn Gould (below).

It is a great idea that was executed greatly. I think that Tom Huizenga and Anastasia Tsioulcas (below top and bottom, respectively), the hosts of NPR’s classical blog “Deceptive Cadence,” have outdone themselves and their now outstanding past record with the week-long series devoted to a single work. It deserves some kind of industry prize or recognition.

See what you think and let me know.

Here are various links:

To an amusing and clever quiz on the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/21/148743420/the-official-goldberg-variations-puzzler?ps=rs

To scholar Christoph Wolff (below) on the origins of the Goldbergs and the piano versus harpsichord debate:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/19/148913266/bachs-enduring-enigma-an-introduction-to-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

To pianist-composer Lara Downes (below) on her new, Wallace Stevens-inspired variations based on the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/20/149014876/lara-downes-new-viewpoints-on-old-variations?ps=rs

To pianist Jeremy Denk – one hopes he records them soon — and his thoughts on the origins and structure of the Goldbergs plus his songful and soulful playing of several variations and his take on other topics including Hannibal Lecter’s love of the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/22/149089528/bachs-goldberg-variations-infinite-worlds-out-of-eight-borrowed-notes?ps=rs

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/22/149148529/this-is-your-brain-on-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/16/148769794/why-i-hate-the-goldberg-variations

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/20/148988529/hannibal-lecters-guide-to-the-goldberg-variations?ps=rs

To famed pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (below) on Glenn Gould’s landmark performances of the Goldbergs:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/23/148592274/leif-ove-andsnes-the-miracle-of-glenn-gould

And there is more on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog site about the Goldbergs, including a look at a great harpsichord plus many videos and photos to look at and many videos to listen to.

Which recording is your favorite version of the Goldberg Variations, and why?

Do you prefer the harpsichord or piano, and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are 8 lessons I learned from my day of “Berlitz Bach” at Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Bach Around the Clock 3” last Saturday

March 23, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I call it “Berlitz Bach.”

That’s because my experience last Saturday amounted to total immersion, much the way the famous Berlitz school teaches foreign languages so effectively.

From noon to midnight, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Pres House (“Pres” for Presbyterian) held the third annual Back Around the Clock to greet the 327th birthday — which was this past Wednesday — of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was webcast live and in real time by WPR.

Most performers played a couple of pieces, in 15- to 30-minute intervals. I heard much to enjoy. But I also learned some new things or had previous lessons reinforced. Most things remained similar to the two previous years, although this there time seemed to be more young students and amateur community members, fewer individual or group singers, fewer professional groups, and better refreshments and treats.

Here are the eight lessons I learned, although I could probably come up with more if I thought about it longer:

1. Call him the greatest composer. Call him the best composer. Call him the most influential composer. Call him whatever you want, but Johann Sebastian Bach (below) brings out the public like nobody else.

It is hard to imagine doing the same 12-hour community celebration as successfully with any other composer. In fact, it was so successful that WPR music director Cheryl Dring, who founded the event and continues to direct it, says that she had to turn away quite a few would-be performers.

As a result she has already set a date for BATC 4: March 16. 2013. And, she says, she may expand it by two hours, from 10 a.m. to midnight, just to accommodate all the people – professionals, amateurs and students – who want to participate. Stay tuned.

2. Madison truly is a haven for classical music.

Madison has an awful lot of classical music for a city of 250,000 in a county of 300,000 – as those of us who live here well know since we often have to choose between conflicting or competing events.

But apparently others in the area and region also know it and appreciate it, and so Madison now has a reputation beyond the city limits. One example: Husband and wife Roy and Nancy Carroll — he is a keyboard player and she is a flutist — drove all the way, with a harpsichord,  from Dubuque, Iowa, to perform, according to Dring, who also said that listeners came from as far away as Racine to attend the event. And the listeners who wandered in and out all day and night were young, old and in-between as well as attentive and appreciative.

3. Bach transplants well and survives in just about any setting, form or genre. He truly is timeless.

I heard Bach’s “Musette” on bagpipe from a Saint Patrick’s Day bagpiper – Sean Michael Dargan — who wandered in. But, sad to say, I missed Michael Briggs playing Bach on the accordion and the jazz piano stylings of another participant..

I also heard Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 1, superbly and beautifully done on cello and two saxophones (the saxophone didn’t even exist unit the late 19th century) by the Simonson Trio (bel0w), which featured cellist Brian Grimm, alto saxophonist Pete Ross and soprano saxophonist Dennis Simonson.

I heard original scorings of the solo violin partitas and sonatas (Michelle Xie, below bottom, played the Adagio from the Solo Violin Sonata No. 1) and solo cello suites (Lindsay Crab, below top, played the entire Cello Suite No. 3).

I heard a ear-catching duet arrangement for flute (right hand) and bassoon (left hand) by Casey Oelkers and Cynthia Cameron Fix of Two-Part Inventions that were originally composed for solo for keyboard and played by countless students for the instructional intent Bach intended them to have. Here they are (below) playing Invention No. 4 in D Minor:

I heard pianists play works for the organ, and organ people — like Alex Ford — play all kinds of organ works on the digital organ that features sound samplings from the organ Bach himself used.

I heard the all-adult and many-elder New Horizons Wind Ensemble play chorale preludes, including Martin Luther’s own tune “A Mighty Fortress” (below):

3. No Bach is easy or small.

Forget titles. Even the so-called “Little Preludes” are challenging to play. But all Bach, big or small, is worth it. It is hard to think of another composer with so much music to his credit and so few failures among it. Bach (1685-1759) wrote an enormous amount in his 65 years. All the more reason, then, it is good to take some time to appreciate his variety, productivity and quality – and to play him with confidence. His music holds up to just about anything.

4. The future of classical music is secure, no matter what sales figures and prognosticators say.

How do I know? BATC is a great event for students to learn to perform and to share their musical gifts with others, and we need more such events.

Once again, as you can see from the photos, dozens of students came from the studios of teachers Gloria Chuang, Bill Lutes, Irmgard Bittar, Denise Taylor and others.

BATC 3 was also a family affair in many cases. For example, Madison piano teacher Denise Taylor accompanied her daughter Ellie Taylor on violin (below top) in a transcription of the two Gavottes from the Orchestral Suite in D Major, and then herself played the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor from Book I of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” despite being unnerved when she was asked to cut out one of the two pieces she had prepared in order to save a couple of minutes (Unfair, I say!):

5. Adults, even older adults, can start at the beginning and learn to play an instrument – and to play Bach, and to be rewarded for their efforts.

Take David Pilmer (below): He started late in life but played beautifully and from memory. And he wasn’t alone.

6. Bach was a prophet who prefigures the rest of music that followed him.

You can see Bach as the summation of what came before him. No surprise, there.

But when retired University Opera director Karlos Moser explained and then played half a dozen fugues (without their Preludes) from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier – and played them more beautifully and robustly than I have ever heard – Bach’s legacy became clear.

Listen closely. Your hear seeds, stalks and blossoms.  You could hear the Baroque, of course. But you could also hear Classicism. You could hear Romanticism. You could even hear 12-tone and serial music, such as the theme from Fugue 24 where Bach uses all 12 tones in the scale in the theme. Maybe such comprehensiveness helps to explain Bach’s universality.

7. You do not have to be old, wise or experienced to have musicality.

I heard some astounding playing from very young students who performed on the piano, the violin, the viola, the organ. It was full of confidence and technical precision and, for lack of a better term, soul– just like the playing of Allen Chang (below).

8. Wrong notes don’t matter.

BATC started as an informal community celebration, a public event where casual dress and casual playing remain the norm. People could pick and choose movements according to their taste.

But more importantly, the event made you realize just how little mistakes matter. Music exists for the joy of communicating beauty and joy to others. There were no Olympics judges holding up scorecards and awarding medals. Instead, there was plenty of appreciation and applause for everyone – whether they were old or young;  professionals or amateurs; using modern old instruments; hitting right notes or wrong ones.

That is the joy of music.

And the joy of Bach, who apparently had a good sense of humor and would have appreciated the Warhol-like poster for BATC 3:

Thank you, all – Cheryl Dring, Wisconsin Public Radio, Pres House and the many dozens of performers and listeners.

I will see you again – and maybe even play for you – next March 16.

As either a performer or a listener, do you have some comments about or reactions to Bach Around the Clock 3?

The Ear wants to hear.

Meanwhile, here are viola da gambist Eric Miller and harpsichordist Max Yount, who performed two of the three gamba (or cello) sonatas by Bach:


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