The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This 90-year-old Belgian classical pianist learned how to play slow movements by Mozart and Beethoven by hearing Ray Charles – and shows why The Ear likes the arts reporting on PBS and NPR | January 15, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, I posted a disconcerting story from the Columbia Journalism Review about how most mainstream newspapers and traditional media are cutting way back on art coverage.

After all, runs the conventional wisdom, how can the arts compete with sports, politics and crime for attracting readers?

Here is a link to that post:

Well, that kind of mistaken thinking is one reason why The Ear likes to watch PBS and national Public Radio or NPR. Especially on the PBS NewsHour, you find terrific stories about and interviews with major figures in the fine arts and the performing arts.

PBS treats the arts as vital and essential, not ornamental or secondary.

A wonderful example happened this week on the segment called “Brief But Spectacular” in which people offer their thoughts about their own lives and careers.

In this case, it was Jean Stark — a 90-year-old Belgian-born woman who was an accomplished concertizing classical pianist. She performed in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York City, and in halls around the world, and who talks about her life and career for PBS.


In the four-minute interview, she laments how classical music isn’t promoted these days and emphasizes how wonderful it was to be alive during the golden years of classical music with such great figures as composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But, she confesses, for all her accomplishments she was unsatisfied with how she played slow movements of sonatas by Classical-era masters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.


Until she came to the U.S. and went with a friend to a concert by Ray Charles.

Charles, she says, taught how to play slowly.

The Ear only wishes she had been more specific about the lessons she learned. Was it phrasing? Tempo? Accents? “Rubato,” or flexible timing?

It is a great, heart-warming story and typical of the kind of human interest arts coverage that you generally do not find on other television news channels, whether traditional networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX or cable TV channels such as CNN and MSNBC.

So The Ear offers it as both an enjoyable and informative arts story, and as an endorsement of the PBS NewsHour and especially reporter Jeffrey Brown, who does such a terrific job of reporting on the arts.

Here is the segment, which you can find on YouTube, along with other recordings by Stark:

An after-thought: To the best of his knowledge, The Ear thinks that the music you hear her playing is the “Aeolian Harp” Etude in A-Flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1, by Frederic Chopin and part of the suite “Pour le piano” (For the Piano) by Claude Debussy.

What do you think of arts coverage on the mainstream media and on PBS?

What do you think Jean Stark learned from Ray Charles?

If you saw this story, how did it affect you?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. dear ear: thanks for this wonderful glimpse of an inspiring musician.

    Comment by John H Harbison — January 16, 2017 @ 10:45 am

  2. Hi, Jake! With regard to what Jeanne Stark was playing: You were correct about the “Aeolian Harp Etude”; the other one was indeed Debussy, but was from the 3rd piece in his “Estampes” suite (roughly translated, “Gardens in the Rain”) rather than from “Pour le Piano”. And yes, Public TV and Radio is far and away the best source for Arts programming and commentary, as well as general news coverage, IMO. In the future, those of us who want it to continue are going to have to step up financially to keep it — we’re sure as heck not going to get any help from the incoming administration, and very likely we will at least see efforts to defund it totally.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — January 15, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

  3. Comment above by Katherine Esposito, publicist and concert manager for the School of Music

    Comment by uwmadisonsom — January 15, 2017 @ 8:03 am

  4. I would not say this qualifies as music criticism, but on our website, there’s a page devoted to stories from our current students: not award winners or extraordinary graduates, but the dedicated student of music, explaining why he or she chose his or her path. Some of the stories are profound, some simply explanatory, but all provide a little bit of insight into the reasons why people adopt music as a calling and how beneficial it can be. Here’s the page:

    Comment by uwmadisonsom — January 15, 2017 @ 8:03 am

  5. Perhaps it is not just our culture but those of many advanced capitalist societies? I do, however, note the Germans and the Russians seem to be a bit different (and the Japanese too, because classical music is highly thought of there and they actually have a 24 hour classical music cable station).

    I am reading George Orwell’s Diaries (fascinating; the Penguin Classic edition is nicely edited) and have learned from associated research that the BBC, for whom Orwell worked for several years, has zero recordings of any of his radio broadcasts.

    Zip. I find that astonishing.

    Especially since he was a highly regarded author at the time and interviewed many prominent people in the arts.

    Comment by FFlambeau — January 15, 2017 @ 4:44 am

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