The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New York Times art critic Roberta Smith praises the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle by Robert Lepage.

May 22, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many months now – almost two years — The Machine has been the object of scorn by opera buffs.

Many of the nation’s most acclaimed music critics, including Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times and Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine, have heaped scorn on various aspects of the mammoth, complicated and expensive mechanical set or device (below, in “Das Rheingold”) that director Robert Lepage invented for his production at the Metropolitan Opera of Richard Wagner’s equally mammoth “Ring” cycle.

Some people, including New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe, have praised aspects of it. And even Tommasini has had some second thoughts.

But the best overall minority report I have seen, the best dissent, if you will, came recently in the form of a perceptive and articulate column and appreciation by New York Times critic Robert Smith (below).

She makes many points, including how the visual aspect of The Machine clarified and reinforced the important plot points and individual characters in the epic four-opera series.

Read it and see what you think:

What did you think of The Machine?

Did it add to or detract from your appreciation of the Met’s “Ring” cycle and of Wagner?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Pianist Jeremy Denk “de-normalizes” classical music with his new CD of Beethoven and Ligeti, and points the way to the industry’s future with a recording that deserves a Grammy.

May 21, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Pianist Jeremy Denk (below) – who says he is “obsessed with de-normalizing classical music” – is of one of the most promising and original musical talents not only in the US but also on the world scene.

And he is no stranger to Madison.

He first played here several years ago as the accompanist to star violinist Joshua Bell, with whom he recently toured Europe and recorded an outstanding album of French sonatas for Sony Classical.

Two seasons ago, Denk appeared at the Wisconsin Union Theater and performed a mammoth program of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Charles Ives’ neglected Piano Sonata No. 1. He also held a master class for young piano students; participated in a blogging workshop; and gave a fascinating lecture on pedaling in Chopin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

A year from now, Denk will again perform on the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series, over in Mills Hall since the Memorial Union will be closed for two seasons while it undergoes major renovation.

A graduate of Oberlin College (where he major in chemistry) and the Juilliard School, Denk has many honors to his credit. He taught at Indiana University 1996-2002 and currently teaches at Bard College. For a week this winter, he was an artist–in-residence at NPR and you can go to to listen to him. His blog “Think Denk” ( is extremely well written with thought-provoking perspectives on music and is extremely popular. Acclaimed critic Alex Ross, of The New Yorker Magazine singles it out as among the very best.

Last week, Nonesuch released Denk’s debut CD for the label: It features Beethoven’s visionary last piano sonata, No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, sandwiched in between selections of Gyorgy Ligeti’s fiendishly difficult two books of 20th and 21st century etudes.

It is a revelatory recording that The Ear expects to be nominated for and win a Grammy as well as several other international recording awards. Yes, it is that good. It is that landmark a recording with eye-catching black-and-white photography by Michael Wilson and with liner note by Denk himself.

I also think it is also an indicator of how the recording industry might once again find its commercial feet and reclaim its artistic soul by emphasizing connection among music works – by combing new music with old, or mixing works by very contrasting composers — and by offering listeners musicianship of an original sort rather than the same old celebrity and virtuosity of competition winners.

We need more dialogue between the past and the present – and that is exactly what the thoughtful and virtuosic Denk makes music do.

Denk recently e-mailed The Ear with comments about his new recording and his upcoming appearance in Madison:

What does the new recording for Nonesuch mean to you and to your career?

Who knows the answer to that question? You’d have to predict the future, probably. Obviously it’s a Good Thing. At the very least it means I am a very happy camper, and I went out for some excellent celebration drinks with my friends.

I guess the best part is that on some level it associates me with a group of musicians that I deeply admire and respect—among many others Richard Goode, Brad Mehldau—and even with the idea of Nonesuch, which often seems to be about music that doesn’t care to fit “normally” in the genre cubbyholes that tradition and habit have built.

I am sort of obsessed with de-normalizing classical music (for instance, in this case, making Beethoven sound even weirder by surrounding him with Ligeti). I guess it also can mean trying to play Mozart (or Brahms or whatever) in a way that makes it feel less familiar; so that the surprises in the music — the radical inventive qualities — re-emerge.   These radical qualities are certainly there, but the whole tradition and trapping of the classical concert (and even our education as musicians) can sometimes conspire to hide them!

I blame the metronome, among other things.  But Ligeti does amazing things with the metronome; he understands its “soul” (so to speak).

What plans for future releases and repertoire (Bach Toccatas, Beethoven Concerto No. 1, Chopin ballades and mazurkas you lectured about here) do you have with Nonesuch?

There are no completely definite repertoire plans, but the “Goldbergs” seem to be the favored option for the next project. This would make sense, since I’ve been playing them off and on the last several years.

Why did you pair Ligeti etudes and the Beethoven’s final Sonata, Op. 111? Do the both share some quality? How does pairing them change or enhance the listener’s perception and appreciation of each composer or piece?

I had the hardest time cutting my liner notes down to size, partly because I had so many different justifications for this pairing.  To sum up, the super-duper Reader’s Digest Version: 1) They’re both “new music,” the Beethoven perpetually unsettling, a work which will never feel traditional; the Ligeti, a radicalization of tradition; 2) Op. 111 is an amazing portrait of infinity, a carefully constructed journey to eternity, and the Ligeti Etudes are an amazing collection of snapshots of the infinite; they’re both “friendly with ∞;” 3) Both the Ligeti and Beethoven are about complex dualisms of time, visions of time that are drifting apart.

One very important thing about the Beethoven that got cut from my notes:  The first movement seems very much in a hurry, kind of driven — this is the movement where Beethoven drags in the past very overtly (Bach, French Overture, fugue); whereas the second is very patient, very leisurely. In other words, it offers a beautiful paradox:  the movement that is consumed with the past is in a desperate hurry, and the movement that foresees the future is infinitely patient.

You will return next spring to Madison. Do you have a program in mind?

I am guessing good old-fashioned Brahms (below) and Liszt — the demonic side of Brahms, and all sorts of facets of Liszt from the sacred to the profane.  I recent re-fell in love with the “Paganini Variations,” one of the most inspired sets of variations in history.  I love Brahms when he doesn’t have to develop or do too much complicated thinking; when he must simply rely on inspiration, moment to moment. He really rises to these occasions.

I think you will be doing some kind of alternative time (lunch) -alternative venue (small concert space) while you are in Madison. Any comment?

I don’t know what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

Is there anything you want to say about the recording, you, your career, the Madison date or the music scene in general, including your recent gigs on NPR?

I think my problem is certainly not saying too little.  A lot of my thoughts are on my blog, so many.  I’ve left quite a trail.  I hope my career is developing in a way that makes sense to someone!

As for the recording, it represents an enormous swath of my life, love and attention; I find Op. 111 to be one of the most affecting works of art, ever — period, end of story; I am always choked up and overwhelmed when Beethoven “re-finds” the theme in the second movement; it is something completely harrowing, completely redeeming.  It’s more like an experience than a piece of music.  It’s what music is for, if music is for anything.  And I think the Ligeti Etudes are equally astounding in a different way.

In short, there is no way I can make any reasonable, objective assessment of the record; it’s a bit like a limb that’s been cut away from me, and now, like it or not, it’s out in the world, doing its thing.

Classical music: There is more to graduation and commencement — and to British composer Sir Edward Elgar — than “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.” We need to hear more Elgar.

May 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend once again brings graduation and commencement ceremonies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other universities, colleges and all kinds of schools all around the country will follow soon.

And many proud graduates, parents, family members and friends will hear the familiar strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major – which is still a stirring and appropriate choice of music for a processional. It may be a cliché, but it works.

But as a recent NPR interview with Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop (below) made clear, there is much more to the music of Elgar than that old standby, wonderful as it is.

There is also more, much more, than the “Enigma” Variations and the Cello Concerto, his other two most popular works performed in concert halls.

For example, there is the “Salut d’amour” which the The Ear thinks is one of the most lovely pieces of violin salon music ever composed. It is  at the bottom; take a listen and see if you agree.

But there are also bigger pieces by the relatively untrained Elgar (below) that we should know better and hear more often. Like Brahms, Elgar struggled to write symphonies and composed them later in life – as almost everyone after Beethoven did.

But Marin Alsop takes NPR’s Scott Simon and listeners through a crash course it Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, which I heard conducted here by Kenneth Woods (below), a Madison native and graduate of West High School and the UW who is now the conductor of the Orchestra of the Swan in Cardiff, Wales. Several years ago, Wood returned to Madison to conductor the UW Symphony Orchestra in Symphony No. 1 (below). It proved to be an exciting and enlightening performance by a great Elgar advocate.

I thought the discussion between Alsop and Simon, complete with musical snippets from each movement of the Symphony No. 1, which was premiered in 1908, proved terrific and illuminating. See it and hear it for yourself:

But I was puzzled by one thing: They see Elgar as a great representative of the kind of noble majesty of Edwardian England – and he is. They are 100 percent right on that score.

But neither of them remarked on the devastating effect of World War I, which decimated English society and left a lasting effect on the arts and so much more. World War I changed everything. That’s a major reason why Elgar’s music summons up a different world, a more reassuring and kinder, gentler world, a more stable world based on a strictly stratified and classist society. Think “Downton Abbey.”

Anyway, listen to the discussion and musical excerpts on this NPR broadcast and then let The Ear know what you think and which pieces by Sir Edward Elgar you love best and in what performances.

Maybe we should even make Graduation Weekend each year also  Sir Edward Elgar Weekend, and use it as a time to reconsider his work, which in many ways still remains underestimated and underperformed more than a century later.

Classical music news: Famed German baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau is dead at 86. Listen, be moved and leave a message.

May 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music world is in mourning today.

Yesterday, on Friday, May 18, 2012, the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below, at 80 in his Berlin home) died at 86, just a few weeks short of his 87th birthday.

I don’t find much to say.

One thing is that I regret I never got to hear him in person. What a treat that would have been, since his ability to communicate the feeling and meaning of a song without cheap or melodramatic theatrics to an audience was unsurpassed.

I also want to say we are lucky to have had him with us as long as we did. He was notoriously heavy cigarette smoker, and an unrepentant one at that. He has been quoted as saying that his smoking added something intangible to his superb tonal quality. Well, may or maybe not. Who am I to argue with him?

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was really one of the vocalists who seemed to sing as naturally and effortlessly as the rest of us breathe and talk. You never heard audible breathing, his line is so seamless. Just listen to his flowing and uninterrupted phrasing. Below, he is singing Schubert’s “In Spring” with pianist Sviatoslav Richter in 1978.

And his diction was unsurpassed. Whether his diction came from his total devotion to the text, or the his devotion to the text arose from his unsurpassed diction, I can’t tell. It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg issue. But does it matter, really? Whatever he did and however he did it, it worked – for many, many decades. (Below is the young Fischer-Dieskau performing in the 1950s.)

Longevity was another part of his miracle. Fischer-Dieskau recorded the great repertoire standards of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler  many times – entire cycles three or four times with different pianists and at different ages. His prolific career spanned 50 years and he produced hundreds of recordings in his lifetime.

It is a measure of his greatness how quickly condolences, tributes and testimonial sites sprouted up on the web and especially at YouTube.

So here are links to two of the sites with the news and factual accounts of his death:

Here is a link to a wonderfully candid interview the singer gave to The Guardian when he turned 80:

And here are links to YouTube videos that were put on the day Dietrich Fischer died and where you can leave comments — as well as herein the COMMENTS section of this blog. Tell us your favorite song he sang and what you liked most about his singing and what it was like to hear him live.

And here is Schubert’s entire song cycle “Winterreise” with Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Alfred Brendel. 

Classical music news: Everyone loves a Gershwin tune. That’s why George Gershwin is the go-to composer when symphony orchestras want to drum up attendance and close seasons on a high note.

May 18, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

 “You know, it is going to be hard to get good seats. This concert is really popular and has very sold well,” said the Overture Center’s box office agent when I went to exchange tickets to last weekend’s all-Gershwin concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra from Sunday afternoon to Friday night.

And she was right.

So I ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, with a somewhat limited vision of the soloists and especially of the full orchestra and chorus.

But one look backwards over my shoulder, out into beautiful Overture Hall, and I saw how packed the 2,200-seat hall was – and it was really packed. That is surely an enviable way to end a season on a high note.

Not that it was unexpected.

By now we all should know that MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) has a special talent for Gershwin. He is closely identified with the opera “Porgy and Bess.” His recording of it won a Grammy, and he has conducted it some 400 times all over the country, including at the City Opera in New York City from which it was broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

While I don’t have exact attendance figures, it sure seems like houses were very good, even if the Sunday performance was a little under-attended because of Mother’s Day. One MSO player even commented that it was such a pleasure to play before a big and appreciative audience. So much for the terrific commercial success of closing out the season.

So artistically, how did the MSO do?

Well as you will see below, the critics, including The Ear, are pretty much unanimous in their judgments: the all-Gershwin concert was great artistic success for the MSO and DeMain as well as for the soloists and Madison Symphony Chorus.

How could it be otherwise?

That’s why Venezuelan-born and –trained superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Hi-Def international satellite broadcast of Gershwin. Why Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did one. Why Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did an all-Gershwin broadcast for New Year’s Eve on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” And it also why the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Sewell, opened this past season with Gershwin’s  “Rhapsody in Blue” with the young Russian virtuoso pianist Ilya Yakushev as the soloist.

So here is how the MSO’s all-Gershwin fete sounded to The Ear.

The orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus performed superbly and tightly and with all the tonal color and dance-like, bluesy rhythms that Gershwin demands, right down to the French taxi horns and Cuban percussion. They sounded balanced with convincing dynamics and a big sound.

The soloists were, for the most part, terrific and absolutely first-rate. DeMain knows how to pick singers, and they brought off the authentic Gershwin sound with infectious conviction. This music left you pleased, happy and satisfied. George Gershwin’s music seems one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can agree on these days.

I guess that’s good.

The first half of the concert was devoted to the popular shorter pieces: the “Cuban” Overture, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” The entire second half was devoted to an extremely well-constructed concert version, by orchestrator and arranger Richard Russell Bennett (below), of “Porgy and Bess” that reduced the four-hour opera to 40 minutes.

The singers, soprano Laquita Mitchell (below top) and baritone Michael Redding (below bottom), both did an outstanding job with the 40-minute concert version of the 4-hour opera “Porgy and Bess.” Redding especially brought out the characters of the roles he sang. He projected right off the stage and was rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.

My biggest disappointment – and it wasn’t all that big– came in the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed fittingly in a bright blue gown, pianist Martina Filjak (below) played the Rhapsody well. She sure has chops, but great interpretations require more than great chops. I found her technique too prominent. She seemed to bang it out at times when it could have used a subtler, softer and more seductive approach. This Gershwin work is more French than Russian, more Ravel than Rachmaninoff. She should listen to Oscar Levant’s old recording.

But what I am really left with is how my overall impression of Gershwin, to whom I previously had paid only passing attention, took shape.

I loved the Gershwin concert while I was in it. But as soon as I left it, I found the music did not stick with me except for some tunes and some lyrics. And it did not make me ask questions or leave me wanting more.

And that, in turn, tells me why Gershwin is so popular.

Gershwin (below), who died prematurely of a brain tumor at 38, was clearly a Tin Pan Alley composer. He composed some dozen Broadway musicals before he even took up writing music for the concert hall. And that experience shows.

There is an ease and naturalness about listening to a Gershwin tune. When the famous Burton Lane song asks “I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” who could possibly answer “Well, I don’t.” Gershwin’s songs are irresistible. They watch over you.

But if I compare the “Rhapsody in Blue” to, say, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 or Schumann’s Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I have no problem knowing which one I would and wouldn’t want to hear repeatedly, which one lacks development and depth, and which one has them.

The “Rhapsody in Blue” is engaging and exciting while it lasts, but then it is over. On the other hand, the other more substantial works may not be as easily digestible, but their nourishment is more sustaining and they continue to yield up insights on repeated hearings.

It’s not that Gershwin is a crossover or superficial composer, even though he is used in a lot of ads. As DeMain explained in his illuminating comments before the performances, Gershwin does indeed define an identifiably American sound. But let’s be honest:  Gershwin’s American sound is closer to song masters George M. Cohan, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern than to composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.

You can take Gershwin (below) out of Broadway. But, like the music of Leonard Bernstein – a Gershwin champion and DeMain mentor whose greatest and most beloved is theater music from “West Wide Story” and “Candide” – you can’t take Broadway out of Gershwin. And Broadway is nothing, if not popular.

Little wonder that we remember “An American in Paris” from Gene Kelly’s Hollywood choreography. And little wonder that even “Porgy and Bess,” a genuinely sincere attempt at serious concert music, got treated this last year to a controversial ADD makeover for today’s Broadway.

This love of Gershwin is here to stay.

What did others think?

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

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

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is a review by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV and

Classical music: The best audiences in town and hundreds of talented young musicians will be in the spotlight at Sunday’s concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

May 17, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

What classical music group plays to the best audiences in town?

You might pick a large, well known group like the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Or you might even pick the UW School of Music faculty members, guest artists and students – all of which receive many standing ovations in a given season.

But you would be wrong.

Hands down —  hands together, really — The Ear’s prize for the BEST AUDIENCES goes to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

If you want to feel how energized a classic music crowd can – and should — get, I heartily suggest you take in the very affordable spring concerts by WYSO this coming Sunday afternoon and night.

Every time I have attended WYSO, concerts I have not only been deeply impressed with the high level of playing and musicianship (you will be too, if you listen to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 excerpt at the bottom); I have also been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from friends, family and other fans that greets these young people who range from middle school to high school.

Informality rules – a lesson, perhaps for other classical music groups looking to grow attendance. You see the audience members, who pack the hall, show up in T-shirts, bluejeans and shorts. You hear the loud cheers, hoots and hollers as the young musicians come on stage, perform and then leave the stage. The audience members photograph and videotape the musicians as they perform. Audiences just don’t come energetic, more serious and more appreciative than you find at WYSO.

It is all so exciting. You would never get the idea that classical music audiences are typically old, stodgy and staid when you attend these concerts. WYSO concerts are filled with young people, with children (below), and even a sound-proof room is provided for parents of small children who get restless and cry out or act up.

On Sunday afternoon and evening, more than 300 talented young musicians will wrap us this season of hard work at home and weekly ensemble practicing with the annual Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family Spring Concerts.

At 1:30 p.m., WYSO’s string orchestra, Sinfonietta, will open the concert series with a performance of “Sakura” for Solo Cello and String Orchestra by M.L. Daniels, featuring soloist Hannah Wolkstein, a WYSO alumna and sectional coach.

The Concert Orchestra will follow with Bach’s “Chorale and Fugue” and Bizet’s “Intermezzo” from “L’Arlésienne.

At 4 p.m., WYSO’s Percussion Ensemble will perform selections including “Londonderry Air,” dedicated to the ensemble’s graduating seniors. The Percussion Ensemble (below) will feature two world premieres, “Rhapsody,” by Matt Halloran, arranged by WYSO alumna Amy Novick, and “Tacoma,” by WYSO percussionist Corinne Steffens. “Tacoma” is dedicated to Madison West High School music educator Steve Morgan, who is retiring this year.

Then comes the Philharmonia Orchestra (below in a photo by Cheng-Wei Wu).

The Philharmonia will showcase the talents of Concerto Competition winner Isabella Wu (below), who will perform the first movement of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, accompanied by her fellow orchestra members. Philharmonia will also bring a few audience favorites to life, including “Danse Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson and Delilah,” and the first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.”

The Youth Orchestra, WYSO’s premier performing group, which travels to Europe this summer, will take the stage following the Harp Ensemble (below) at 7 p.m. and will also highlight this year’s Concerto Competition winners.

With the Youth Orchestra (below), clarinetists Hattie Bestul and Max Butler (below top)  will perform the first movement of Krommer’s Concerto for Two Clarinets. David Cao (below middle) will perform the third movement of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Anthony Cudzinovic (below bottom) will perform the first movement of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor. All four soloists will be accompanied by the Youth Orchestra, which will also perform Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture.

The Bolz Family Spring Concerts, act of which typically last about 90 minutes, will be held in Mills Concert Hall in the UW-Madison’s Mosse Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, in Madison. Tickets are available at the door, and cost $8 for adults and $5 for children under 18 years of age.

And let’s not forget to praise the sponsors of such important educational events especially at a time when the state and schools are cutting back on music and the arts:

These concerts are supported by the Eugenie Mayer Bolz Family and the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation, and the Evjue Foundation, Inc., charitable arm of The Capital Times. This project is also funded in part by additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the State of Wisconsin, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more information, including impressive historical background about WYSO as well as details about how to  donate or become a sponsor and how to audition to play in WYSO, write to WYSO, Room 1625 Humanities Bldg., 455 N. Park St, Madison, WI 53706; call (608) 263-3320; or visit:

Classical music news: Chamber music doesn’t come more exciting than Mendelssohn’s String Octet. Hear it this Saturday and Sunday performed by the Ancora String Quartet and the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Rhapsodie Quartet.

May 16, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks one of the most exciting and enjoyable pieces of chamber EVER written is the Octet for two string quartets written by Felix Mendelssohn (below) in 1825.

I still hold very fond memories of two performances by the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet, one of which was performed with the acclaimed Emerson String Quartet at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

There is an inherent element of competition as well as teamwork  that only adds to the excitement of a performance.

This weekend on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon you can hear the Ancora String Quartet (below) team up with guest artists from the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Rhapsodie String Quartet to perform the Octet by Mendelssohn plus Prokofiev’s String  Quartet No. 1. A champagne reception follows the performance Saturday evening.

Tickets for general seating will be available at the door for $15; $12 for seniors, students and FUS members; and $6 for children under 12.

In addition, the quartet’s co-founder and violist Marika Fischer Hoyt has also started a blog to go with the group’s website.

Here is a link to the Ancora’s website, which has more information and biographies:

And here is a link to the new and welcome blog:

Finally here is the press release about this weekend’s upcoming concerts.

“Please join the critically acclaimed Ancora String Quartet for the final concert of our 11th season.  In this season, entitled The Musician and His Muse, we are exploring the fascinating working relationships between four master composers and the violinists who inspired, critiqued, and ultimately premiered their now-famous string quartets.

Our May 19 and 20 recital program includes works by Prokofiev (below), the String Quartet in B minor, Op. 50, composed in 1930-31; and by Mendelssohn, the Octet; there will be an examination of their working relationships with Antonio Brosa and Eduard Rietz, respectively.

‘The program features the famous Mendelssohn Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20, (composed in 1825 for Rietz’ 23rd birthday), for which we will be joined onstage by The Rhapsodie String Quartet (below), of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s HeartStrings Community Engagement Program.  We are delighted to play with our respected colleagues, and have added an extra performance to accommodate the anticipated increased demand for tickets.

The pair of recitals will take place on Saturday, May 19, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 2:30 p.m., in the Landmark Auditorium, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. That is also where the Ancora Quartet remains artists-in-residence.

Tne Ancora Quartet (below, at the FUS) consists of violinist Leanne Kelso League and Robin Ryant; violist Marika Fisher Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. The Rhapsodie Quartet  consists of violinist Suzann Beia and Laura Burns; violist  Christopher Dozryst; and cellist Karl Lavine.

Classical music news: Copenhagen, Denmark sure likes Flash Mobs. Just listen to members of the Copenhagen Philharmonic performing Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”

May 15, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I remember a “60 Minutes” story about how the so-called “melancholy Danes” are actually the most satisfied citizens in the world.

True, they pay a lot of taxes. But in the interviews, it quickly became apparent that people like that just fine since such taxation also brings them excellent health care, state-paid higher education, generous maternity and paternity leave, public transportation, and many other social and personal benefits. (And so far, I don’t hear Denmark included in discussions of Europe’s debt problems.)

Maybe that level of public satisfaction also helps to explain why members of the Copenhagen Philharmonic like to stage “flash mob” versions of symphonic music in subway cars and railroad stations

To remind people: Flash mobs are populist in nature;  and though apparently spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment, they are in reality very well planned and synchronized events where music just starts happening outside concert halls or the usual and traditional venues. Some flash mobs are instrumental, but most seem to use group singing, especially for the “Hallelujah Chorus” by Handel.

Do you like the good life? Not for nothing is Copenhagen known as the “Paris of the North.”

Here, for example, are two videos of the flash mob events that have gone viral.

The first one, from last year, is Ravel‘s “Bolero” played in the city’s main railroad station. It has brought over 5 MILLION hits to YouTube. It is also a perfect piece for a gathering flash mob as the repetitive melody and rhythm hop around from one instrument or section to another.

The most recent one, just a week ago, is a version the soaring and stirring “Dawn” movement  of Grieg’s popular “Peer Gynt,” which the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra played in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater a couple of season ago. The Danes play it in a subway car full of commuters. So far, that video has brought in over 2 MILLION hits — and brought me to tears. To have such beauty in the amid the hubbub of our daily life and at the beginning of the work day is truly inspired! I expect many more millions of hits to come.

Take a look and listen:

And just to remind you: Flash mobs also happen in Madison at the Farmers Market, the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Here is a link to several:…0.0.yo3I5hOWatA

What do you think of the flash mob phenomenon in general?

What did you think of these Copenhagen flash mobs?

What make Copenhagen special as a place for flash mobs.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Let us now praise all the invisible people behind the scenes who make concerts and culture possible.

May 14, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

It takes a village to raise a child, goes the proverb.

And The Ear says it takes a team to present a soloist.

We said goodbye last Wednesday afternoon to Ann Miller Chastain (below) – who went professionally by Ann Miller — the former marketing director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the past five years.

We said it at a 90-minute tribute and memorial gathering (below) in the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, where almost 300 people gathered to pay their respects to a woman who struggled valiantly but ultimately in vain against an especially aggressive form of cancer. She was 62.

If you go to MSO concerts, you might remember seeing her in the lobby at intermission, where she always had a friendly and enthusiastic word for you.

Here is a link to her obituary:

And here is a link to her Facebook page, where you will also find sone of the causes she championed:

As usually happens at this kind of event, we relived much of Ann’s life through co-workers, friends and family members as well as through Ann’s own wishes and plans for the celebration of a life well lived.

We heard about her indefatigable good humor, her ever-present smile and her professional commitment based on both passion and expertise. We heard live and recorded music, songs she loved. We heard how she worked to hone her formidable selling skills at her own dress shop, at a radio station, a TV station, at Madison Magazine.

MSO artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below) spoke simply but eloquently and touched on a special skill Ann was particularly proud of: Drawing young people to classical music concerts that generally attract an older audience.

But even as John and others spoke, and music (Puccini’s string quartet “Chrysanthemums”) was played by the MSO’s Rhapsodie Quartet (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), I kept thinking that it is too bad that so much applause and recognition go to the person or group in the spotlight, while so many of the people who – like Ann — make the performing arts possible and successful remain in the shadows and dwell in silence.

I think of all the music providers I love and work with in Madison — the UW School of Music, the MSO, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Madison Opera, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Madison Early Music Festival, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival and so many others.

And I think of how many people it takes to make each concert possible.

I wonder: Maybe at the end of each season, those people – or at least a representative sample of them – could come out on stage to take a bow and receive our gratitude.

They are the people who publicize the event and make sure we know about it.

They are the people who plan the event and book the artists, which is far more complex and time-consuming than you might think.

They are the people who keep the show running on schedule.

They are the people who solve problems, major and minor, for both the performers and the public.

They are the people who seek donations and balance the books.

They are the people who do the sound and lighting, the sets and costumes.

They are the people who plan outreach, educational and fundraising events.

And they do so much more that I haven’t even mentioned.

They are the so-called “small” people who have such a big effect and without whom Madison’s thriving performing arts scene would simply not be possible.

And The Ear thinks they deserve more recognition than a name printed in a program or a memorial service when they die.

Now, you should know that nobody among these people, or in Ann’s family, has asked me to write this.

But I know and you know: Even the greatest individual soloist needs an entire team to be able to perform in public.

So I say: Thank you, Ann.

And thank you to all the others who, like Ann, bring me the news of beauty, as American poet William Carlos Williams once wrote.

We, like the performers, appreciate all that you do – and we want you to know that.

You do so much for us.

We should do more for you.

Classical music: What is the best music for Mother’s Day? What music would you play for your Mom? Here are Dvorak songs for all mothers and a Chopin waltz for my Mom.

May 13, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day, a holiday that is rightly celebrated in one way or another and at one time another around the world.

It seems a good time to ask: “What is appropriate music to play on Mother’s Day?”

Well, it depends of course on the music and the Mom.

So for all mothers, I offer these beautiful and poignant “Songs My Mother Taught Me’ by Antonin Dvorak as sung by Anna Netrebko.

They capture the sweetness and innocence of motherhood and childhood without being hackneyed.

Listen to the beauty:

For my Mom, something special and particular is required.

After all, she took me to see the great pianist Artur Rubinstein in Carnegie Hall – where she even managed to get stage seats so I, as a young and aspiring pianist, could be close to The Master — perform an all-Chopin recital on my 15th birthday.

So, here are clips of Rubinstein playing one of the pieces we heard that night way back in 1961.

The choice of a waltz is poignant because at 90 Mom is now confined to a wheelchair. But she fights back with energy and determination and love, always love, and dances in her heart.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

I am proud of you.

And I love you.

What piece would you play and dedicate to your Mom on Mothers Day? Let us know,, and include a link is possible, in the Comments section.

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