The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and piano soloist Ilya Yakushev excel in a varied program. But audience members should do better at observing concert etiquette. Plus, retired UW-Madison bass-baritone Sam Jones dies at 87. | January 26, 2015

ALERT: Sad news has reached The Ear. Samuel M. Jones, a bass-baritone who was an exceptional performer and teacher at the UW-Madison School of Music for 37 years and who also served as the cantor at Temple Beth El and the Choral Director at Grace Episcopal Church, has died at 87. Here is a link to the obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://m.host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/jones-dr-samuel-m-jr/article_8a445e98-0cf3-5112-bd72-8840b58a0399.html?mobile_touch=true

Samuel M. Jones

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night, The Ear couldn’t be in two places at once.

Being in the mood for some solo piano playing – because The Ear himself is an avid amateur pianist – he attended the solo recital of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, William Bolcom and Johannes Brahms performed by UW-Madison School of Music professor Christopher Taylor. But more about that will come in another post this week.

However, Larry Wells — a college classmate and good friend who is a longtime and very knowledgeable classical music follower and who has worked, lived and attended concerts in Rochester, San Francisco, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul — went to the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

He filed this review:

WisconsinChamberOrchestrainCapitolTHeaterlobby

By Larry Wells

The program opened with a short introduction by Maestro Andrew Sewell, the longtime music director and conductor of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, to the “English Suite” for string orchestra by the contemporary British composer Paul Lewis. (Sewell himself is a New Zealand native who also trained in England.)

Paul Lewis composer

Although the work was termed by Sewell as an obligatory form for British composers in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and the like, I found the rhapsodic opening and closing of the second section, “Meditation,” reminiscent of VW’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” But the remainder of the piece seemed trite and forgettable.

Following was the Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. In this case, a concert grand piano was used featuring soloist Ilya Yakushev, a Russian native who now lives in the U.S., who was making his second appearance with the WCO.

This familiar piece was played bouncily in the first movement, sweetly in the second, and really fast in the third. I enjoyed Yakushev’s playing, although from my seat the piano seemed slightly muffled and occasionally unheard over the orchestra.

ilya yakushev 3

The second half of the evening opened with the Chamber Symphony No. 2 by Arnold Schoenberg, which Maestro Sewell claimed to be in the manner of Richard Strauss. If so, Strauss was much more expressive and engaging.

The evening ended with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn, again featuring Yakushev. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and found it immediately engaging and enjoyable throughout. (You can hear Ilya Yakushev perform the Mendelssohn piano concerto in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether, it was a good evening of music.

But it was unfortunately marred early in the aforementioned “Meditation” movement when a woman two seats down from me decided to answer a text. The bright light from her cell phone was distracting, so I pointedly stared at her until her seat mate nudged her, and she put away the phone. The seat mate clearly felt that I was in the wrong and glared at me.

I noticed that there is no caution in the program about turning off cell phones, so I believe it would be a good idea for a brief announcement to be made at the beginning of the concert and at the end of the intermission for people to turn off their phones. That simple courtesy has still not become a part of all concertgoers’ routines.

smart phone

And what is with the Madison tradition of giving everything a standing ovation? (Below is a standing ovation at a concert on the Playhouse by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

There have been perhaps a dozen times in my long concert-going life when I have been so moved by the moment that I’ve leapt to my feet. I think of a standing ovation as recognition of something extraordinary — not as a routine gesture that cheapens to the point of meaninglessness.

For purposes of comparison, here is a link to the review of the same concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and pianist Ilya Yakushev that veteran local music critic and retired UW-Madison medieval history professor John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=44422&sid=6243d3d1e78139b69884d31c5c1126e2

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4 Comments »

  1. Perhaps Mr. Barker missed the incomparable Gunnar Johansen who also taught at Wisconsin? G. Johansen, the first artist-in-residence at any university anywhere, recorded the complete keyboard works of Bach, in 43 albums! So, obviously Johansen did not believe in the kind of nonsense written by Barker.

    Nor did these other eminent keyboard artists: F. Liszt, S. Rachmaninoff, J. Hoffman, A. Cortot, A. Schnabel, S. Richter, M. Pollini, A. Schiff, G. Gould, A. Gabrilov, E. Kissin, K. Zimerman, A. Hewitt, R & P Serkin, M. Pires, D. Barenboim, W. Kempff, F. Busoni, A. Weissenberg, J. Boulet, G. Sokolov, A. Rubenstein, M. Hess, D. Lippati, V. Horowitz, amongst many others.

    One person who is especially important both as a pianist and a harpsichord player (she won awards playing this instrument) and music teacher (Julliard; U. of Oxford) the author of a well known Oxford U. Press book on Bach, is Rosalyn Tureck. Here is what she wrote about Bach and the controversy over whether Bach can be played on a piano:

    “I believe that the main reasons for singling out the harpsichord are practical ones. It has a wide register and can be heard, to some extent, in a small concert hall; whereas the clavichord [the instrument that Bach most frequently played other than an organ, Mr. Barker, NOT the harpsichord] cannot be heard at all outside of a normal sized room and is therefore absolutely useless in our modern concert life. And yet, when a harpsichord is played in a large hall, who can say he really hears it? Most of its subtleties are lost in any concert room seating over 250 or so; and in a large hall, or with even a small chamber orchestra, one can hardly hear it at all. Indeed, many listeners associate the harpsichord with a regular or irregular twang which they like or dislike as the case may be. The music of Bach is too rich and too fascinating for one to be content with only a rustle from a major part; and I cannot believe that the practice of playing harpsichords in concert halls is fair either to Bach or to harpsichords.

    With regard to authenticity, the either-or thinking appears again. The harpsichord is right because it was used in Bach’s time; the piano is wrong because it was not. Is art really as simple as that?”

    She wisely continues: “I feel that the study of earlier instruments and techniques is invaluable and that it should be an integral part of the curriculum in every music school. I would go further and prescribe harpsichord, clavichord and organ for pianists; viols and their techniques of bowing and tone production for strings; and study of the dances of the suites for all. But we must not confuse historical scholarship with living art. If we long for duplication of periods in art and make it a standard of art, is this not the greatest nostalgia of all, far exceeding that of the 19th century, ending in utter sterility? If the aim for duplication in art is continued, then we must duplicate Mozart pianos and develop specialists in that; we must re-manufacture Chopin’s piano, which is very different from the piano of today. Performance then becomes a closed series of identifications based on material factors such as instrument specification and imitation. A sorry end indeed, for end it would be.” See, Tureck, “Bach–Piano, Harpsichord, or Clavichord?” at http://www.tureckbach.com/publication-documentation/page/piano-harpsichord-or-clavichord

    This outstanding expert on Bach, who played both the piano and the harpsichord at the virtuoso level, also wrote, elsewhere: “Remember, if we wanted an authentic performance, we would sit in a dimly lit church, probably too chilly, next to someone who had never heard of deodorant, listening to poorly-tuned small town performers sight read Bach’s new cantata for the week, while others in the pew ignore the music and whisper to each other about the high price of wheat this winter, and gossip about whether the Kapellmeister had been seen again in the organ loft with that unmarried woman.” I suspect that Mr. Barker can be found in that dimly lit, chilly church…

    Comment by fflambeau — January 27, 2015 @ 1:06 am

  2. It is possible to view the actual score for Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto #1 on the internet at the International Music Score Library Project. The two “flanking movements” that Mr. Barker complains were played “at outrageous speeds” are marked, respectively, “Molto Allegro Con Fuoco” or “Very cheerful/fast with Fire” and the third movement “Presto–Molto Allegro e Vivace” or “Very fast, very cheerful/fast and lively”. Remember too that these markings were from a composer who was a noted piano virtuoso and had been criticized by contemporaries: for playing too quickly! So once again, was the soloist out of line, or the reviewer?

    Comment by fflambeau — January 26, 2015 @ 6:45 am

  3. My prior comment is rather lengthy but I believe that Mr. Barker’s bitchiness about the performance of piano soloist Ilya Yakushev is also over the top and he deserves to be called out for it.

    Here’s what he wrote (under a picture of the performer with this nasty caption: “Russian-born pianist Ilya Yakushev is out to prove he can play fast.): “In Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Yakushev did manage some delicacy in its slow movements. But, again, the flanking movements were played at outrageous speeds. Yakushev has technique to burn, and despite his rapidity manages all the notes, but he melts them into a superficial blur without clarity of detail. His was, by far, the most destructively brutal performance I have ever heard of this elegant Mendelssohn work. In a Chopin encore, the pianist demonstrated more moodiness than sensitivity.”

    In actuality, Mendelssohn was a virtuoso piano performer himself and was often criticized for playing “too fast”. This concerto (actually his 2nd for piano since he wrote a “zero” numbered one), in fact, does contain lots of virtuoso sections with fast notes. Franz Liszt, who himself enjoyed showing his virtuosity, also enjoyed playing this piece probably for that reason. We do not have recording of that but Liszt also had a reputation for playing “fast” (as did the composer himself as I previously noted).

    So this criticism strikes me as petty. Similar to the comment in the movie Amadeus by one of the courtiers that Mozart’s music “contains too many notes.”

    Sorry Mr. Barker; look at the score. Much of it requires a virtuoso player and there are indeed lots of fast notes! Kudos to the performer who could play them so beautifully and fast, even as the piece demands of it. The same performer has played at top concert halls worldwide and was the 2005 winner of the World Piano Competition. The accompanying video clip shows a virtuoso performer, and some very tender touches when the music so requires it. Hats off to him and his playing.

    Note too that the WSO program notes for the concert call the Mendelssohn piece “flashy” and indicate that with the Bach and the Schoenberg, “we will be rocking.” So maybe that was the intention of the conductor and the whole concert: to have a really lively, “rocking” time, as they put it. Is the performer to be faulted for doing his part in that and delivering on what was expected? Apparently, the standing ovation by the audience indicated not, despite these two flops by the critics.

    Comment by fflambeau — January 26, 2015 @ 6:07 am

  4. Two rather bitchy reviews, in my humble opinion. Mr. Barker’s in particular. I completely disagree with his: “The choice of a Bach piano concerto (No. 1 in D minor) was counterproductive to begin with: Bach’s originals in this form were chamber works, and the replacement of the harpsichord with the modern grand piano — loud and percussive — always represents a mismatch.”

    Sorry, we live in the 21st century and I suspect Bach himself would have been fascinated with the modern grand piano. That is not to say that the harpsichord does not also have its place; but come on, thousands of concerts have been given by soloists of Bach music on modern pianos. The use of a modern piano in no way precludes a wonderful performance. Moreover, the reviewer by holding this absolutist position prejudices himself for what follows: a real mistake.

    As one noted pianist has written: “I feel that many of Bach’s works are less dependent on the instruments of his day than the works of a Monteverdi or Domenico Scarlatti, Rameau or Couperin. And I think that the co-existence of “historical” and “modern” Bach performance is possible and necessary.” The pianist who said this was no less a performer than the incomparable Alfred Brendel.

    In the notes to his “Brendel Plays Bach” (Philips Label) Brendel notes as well that “the sound of the piano suits modern halls; that of old instruments does not. A critic who thinks that Bach performances should be confined to old instruments should also postulate that one travels to a Baroque marble hall to listen to them; or stay at home to hear them played on a record. Now, in my opinion, Bach should remain part of the living concert repertoire. Thanks to critical judgment, his music has nearly vanished from piano recitals. And pianists are about to lose the ability to play polyphonically, once in high esteem, and so tremendously helpful in individualising the voices of a dense contrapuntal structure, such as a fugue.”

    Brendel continues: “It is sometimes difficult to decide for which of his keyboard instruments a piece [By Bach] was written. The A minor Fantasy and Fugue, for instance, has many features of an organ work. There are, on the other hand, among his keyboard compositions typical ensemble pieces, orchestral works, concertos, or arias which found their way to the keyboard at the expense of more varied instrumental or vocal timbre, declamation and dynamics. They seem like a 2 dimensional reduction of something 3 dimensional. …The modern piano, thanks to its larger sensitivity to colour and dynamics, can sometimes restore the 3rd dimension.

    Brendel directly answers the question, put to him by interviewer Terry Snow, of disadvantages vs. advantages of playing Bach on the piano, as opposed to the harpsichord. He notes that much of Bach’s music is of a “prophetic”, forward looking kind, and gives as an example the A minor Fantasy (or Prelude). According to Brendel, it seems “to be written for instruments of the future. As a harpsichord piece this Fantasy seems to be unsuccessful, as a piano piece it turns out to be quite marvelous, communicating surprises of discovery from bar to bar, never giving away to the listener where it will go.”

    Brendel is one of the most thoughtful of pianists and i believe he is exactly on point and that Barker, in contrast, is wrong in his absolutist stance.

    These quotes come from the CD’s notes and an interview of Brendel by Terry Snow; it is fascinating and deserves to be read in its entirety. Obviously someone of Brendel’s stature has given this considerable thought. By the way, Brendel’s teacher, the eminent Edwin Fischer, also played Bach on a modern piano, as have countless other great performers.

    I agree with the other reviewers expressed annoyance at texting during a concert. But could not someone obviously glaring at another person also be just as off putting to other audience members? Perhaps a measure of understanding was in order? Agree in general that there should be announcements made to refrain from such hand phone use but since there apparently was none…

    This reviewer (Wells) also objects in rather tetchy fashion to the audience’s standing ovation and concludes there is too much of that going on. Perhaps they were in fact signalling what they thought was an outstanding performance?

    Comment by fflambeau — January 26, 2015 @ 5:03 am


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