The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear hears the impressive young pianist Joyce Yang and thinks Madison needs more piano recitals. Plus, a FREE concert of female vocal duets is at noon on Friday. | October 22, 2015

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held 12:15-1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature sopranos Susan Savage Day and Rebekah Demaree with pianist Sharon Jensen in duets by Gabriel Faure, Jacques Aubert, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi, UW-Madison alumnus Lee Hoiby and more.

By Jacob Stockinger

There he was last Thursday, sitting in the lower balcony in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear was in Piano Himmel, listening to a masterful performance.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by Joyce Yang (below), an up-and-coming, prize-winning Korea-born and America-trained pianist, still in her late 20s, who was making her Madison debut.

Joyce Yang

And the same thought haunted The Ear, himself an avid amateur pianist, that also came to him during a fine student piano recital this summer.

That thought was simply this: Madison needs to have many more solo piano recitals.

The piano is perhaps the one most commonly studied musical instrument and is a staple of music education, so the potential audience should be there. The repertoire is vast and wonderful. And the piano just hasn’t been receiving its due compared to the many new choral groups and chamber music ensembles that always seem to be proliferating in the area.

The Wise Teacher recalls years ago when almost a dozen solo piano recitals happened during a single season. This season there are only three -– and two have already taken place.

One was the recital of Mendelssohn, Franck and Chopin by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino (below top)  on Oct. 4 at Farley’s House of Pianos on its Salon Piano Series. (The Ear couldn’t go because he is was in Chicago that afternoon hearing a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini.) The second was by Joyce Yang. The third one will be the performance by UW-Madison virtuoso professor Christopher Taylor (below bottom) on Friday, Feb 26. (No program has yet been announced.)

Daniel del PIno square

Christopher Taylor new profile

Here is an afterthought: Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could start a piano series like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers on Sunday afternoons?

Let’s be clear: This is a matter more of pleasure and education than of justice.

Take Yang’s performance, which drew an unfortunately small house of only 300-400.

The first half was remarkable for both the clarity and color she possessed. Ethnic themes, folk songs and folk dances, especially Latin American and Spanish in nature, united the first half of her program.

She opened with two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the three “Estampes” or Prints by Claude Debussy and two pieces from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz and three virtuosic “cowboy” dances by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

In all those works, Yang proved a complete and mature keyboard artist. Her technique is rock solid, but it is her musicality that most impresses the listener. The Ear was particularly struck by Yang’s command of dynamics, her ability to play softly and still project, and to delineate and balance various voices.

The second half, all works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, proved less satisfying to The Ear, if not to the audience. It featured two transcriptions of vocal works or songs — “Dreams” and  “Vocalise”  — by the late American virtuoso pianist Earl Wild (below).

earl wild

Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge. In short, they are more piano than music. (You can listen to Earl Wild himself performing his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Then came  the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Rachmaninoff (below) in its revised 1931 edition. To be honest, this is a Big Piece that is full of sound and fury signifying not very much that The Ear can discern. (The Ear much prefers Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux.)

To be sure, the bombastic sonata requires impressive and powerful piano playing, which must explain the muscular work’s popularity among professional pianists and certain segments of the public. It is a Wower and wow us it does, although many of us would rather be seduced than wowed.


The sonata surely is effective in live performance and brought an immediate standing ovation. That, in turn, was rewarded with another Earl Wild transcription this time of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Too bad the love once again seemed overpowered by difficult but flawlessly executed scales and runs.

But putting those shortcomings aside, the sound of an amazingly played piano recital was such a welcome experience.

The Ear hopes that many more of them are somehow in store.



  1. “Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

    At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge.”

    Unfortunately, written by an amateur pianist who has not of the talent, and virtuosity of those mentioned? Maybe the most stupid comment I’ve ever seen posted by a blogger, anywhere.

    Recall that Earl Wild won a Grammy for an album featuring him at the piano and for his transcriptions (many of them of Rachmaninoff pieces). His other awards are too numerous to mention; as are the number of albums he recorded. The Horowitz comment is beyond absurd.

    Written in a drunken stupor at one of those decadent piano bars?


    Comment by fflambeau — October 22, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

    • OK fflambeau, I’ll take the bait. We get it. You disagree with Jake. But at least you could have disagreed with something else. You spent two paragraphs on each of two comments quoting back the same two paragraphs of Jake’s from above. Now that I’ve read the same thing three times, does that mean I should agree with you? Please don’t answer – that is a rhetorical question.


      Comment by Steve Rankin — October 23, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

  2. And hear Daisy Hsu tomorrow at Capitol Lakes at 3. Terrific pianist Bev

    Professor Beverly Taylor
    Director of Choral Activities
    University of Wisconsin-Madison


    Comment by Beverly Taylor — October 22, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

  3. Hi, Jake! I think your idea of having the Madison Symphony Orchestra (or, for that matter, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) sponsor a series of Sunday Afternoon concerts for solo piano is a VERY good one. The Capitol Theatre within Overture is IMO an ideal venue for the size of the audience that would attend. As several here have commented, the size of the audience for solo piano recitals under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union is no longer sufficient to fill Shannon Hall. And within the piano world, we’re talking significant “names” with the likes of Jeremy Denk, Peter Serkin, Joyce Yang, and (well, OK) Valentina Lisitsa — not relatively unknown entities. So, if there is to be a solo piano series in Madison, it will have to be based on a business model commensurate with the 400 – 500 attendees that one could reasonably count on to support such a venture — and that, to me, would be part of the Classical Music domain — i.e, MSO or WCO. I for one would certainly be one those supporters.

    P.S. I’m not a fan of the Rachmaninoff 2nd overall, either — but I think the 2nd movement is one of his most poignant and beautiful efforts. He really does “sad” well!


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — October 22, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

  4. Wow, and I thought I was the only one who cared less for Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas than, as you listed, the piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux. I may be a philistine, but at least I have company! 🙂

    I, too, really enjoyed the recital (also lower balcony, perhaps nearby?). The mix of diverse, interesting, thoughtfully selected, and relatively short works completely fits my preferences. Was every piece memorable and compelling to me? Nope. But the *set* of pieces was, and I think that counts for a lot.

    As for the lack of local recitals, and/or the interest in same, I think that solo piano music is more of an acquired taste outside of musician circles (hello, Mikko). I am emphatically not a musician, but it so happens that much of my early classical music education was in the form of small-to-medium piano works – thanks in large part to many season subscriptions to Jeffrey Siegel’s Piano Conversations – and hence I adore the piano. But I have run into several semi-serious classical music buffs who are less interested in the piano, especially recitals like this one. And that’s a shame, but there it is.


    Comment by Tim Cartwright — October 22, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

  5. Madison Area Piano Teachers Association sponsored a master class for young composers for piano (some very young) with Charles Young, professor of music theory at UW-Stevens Point, which took place last Sunday at the Rhapsody Arts Center in Verona. There is some real talent there if they stay the course. More attention given to the piano as a solo performance instrument would help piano students and composition students stay the course throughout the school years when so many other opportunities beckon.


    Comment by Susan Fiore — October 22, 2015 @ 9:24 am

  6. “And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

    At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge.”

    Liberace-like, “over-the-top”, a “piano bar or in a cocktail lounge”: you’re way, way off the mark and this is the second hostile comment (and without merit) about Wild I’ve seen on this board. Hey, why not “Ethel Merman-like” too?

    You’ve insulted three of the greatest people to every play and/or write for the piano (Liszt, Horowitz and Wild) and you wonder why there are not more piano recitals in Madison?

    With respect to the Wild transcriptions, are those the same Earl Wild transcriptions that won awards? The same ones that Gramophone called “scintillating”? Or that Arckivmusic described like this: “he (Wild) fleshes out the textures in a style very much in keeping with the lush polyphony and galvanic rhythm typical of Rachmaninov’s solo keyboard writing.” Or, which many others have called “legendary”?

    Look who’s being Ethel Merman-like.


    Comment by fflambeau — October 22, 2015 @ 6:17 am

  7. If the audience is any guide, there simply isn’t the demand for more piano solo recitals here in Madison. This seems to be a town that likes its chamber music. Personally, I would love to hear more solo voice recitals. But for those, and solo piano as well, the place to go is the UW School of Music, where student recitals are in abundance and the level of performance is often remarkable.

    This Friday, for example, DMA pianist Sara Giusti, a student of Christopher Taylor, is giving a recital of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Prokofiev at 8:30 PM in Morphy Hall. Personally, I would have to recommend you attend the opera that night, since it’s my cast, but if it’s solo piano you are after, Sara is a superb player and I suspect you will be impressed.


    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — October 22, 2015 @ 12:58 am

    • Mikko
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I fear you may be right about the audience for piano concerts.
      But I find myself asking why that would be?
      Thanks for the tip about the student recital. I may well go since I am going to the opera another day.
      Student recitals have always been plentiful at the UW-Madison. And I am glad to see them getting more publicity.
      But I would like to see more of both the young professional concert pianists and the seasoned veterans.
      But that may be just a wistful wish.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — October 22, 2015 @ 7:39 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,245 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,426,003 hits
%d bloggers like this: