The Well-Tempered Ear

YOU MUST HEAR THIS: No piece captures the mixed emotions of Memorial Day better than Charles Ives’ “Decoration Day”

May 30, 2022
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2022.

It is the annual holiday to remember those who died in military service to the country. (Below are flags placed each year at the tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.)

If you want to honor survivors and current service members, that would be Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

All weekend long the radio has been playing music and the television has been showing war movies.

A lot of the music is familiar and repeated every year: Sousa marches and Morton Gould suites, elegies by Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; requiems by Mozart and Fauré; a hymn by John Williams and other movie scores. This year has also seen the playlist include rediscovered works of homage by African-American composers such as William Grant Still.

But only this year did The Ear finally hear — thanks to Wisconsin Public Radio — the one piece that, to his mind, best captures Memorial Day with its blending of consonance and dissonance, its mix of major and major keys, of familiar or “found” music and original music.

It is called, simply, “Decoration Day” and it was composed in 1912 — but not published until 1989 — by the 20th-century iconoclastic and early modernist American composer Charles Ives (below, 1874-1954). It ended up as part of a work the composer called “A Symphony: New England Hollidays.”

See if you agree with The Ear.

Listen to the 8-minute performance by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Listen to the deep anguish and and sense of loss conveyed in the opening, when a solemn remembrance procession goes to a cemetery to plant flags and lay flowers and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of the fallen.

Listen carefully and you will hear a faint version of “Taps” and ringing church bells in the atmospheric music.

Then as so often happens in reality, life suddenly intrudes in the form of a celebration by a loud marching brass band as it leaves the cemetery for the celebratory marches, picnics and fireworks.

But at the end, the darkness briefly returns. The sense of loss lingers long after the actual death and long after the holiday has been celebrated.

There is no closure.

Just resignation.

Just living with loss.

Here is the background from Wikipedia about how the holiday started as Decoration Day after the Civil War and when it evolved into Memorial Day in 1970: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

And here is biographical background, with the actual sources and depictions of “Decoration Day”  — just go  down the page to compositions and click — about Charles Ives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

Did you know and like Charles Ives’ music?

Does “Decoration Day” impress or move you?

What music most embodies Memorial Day for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Too bad the Wisconsin Union Theater didn’t book a great pianist for next season

May 21, 2022
9 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

“We are living in a Golden Age of pianists,”  famed concert pianist, Juilliard teacher and frequent Madison performer Emanuel Ax (below) has said.

He should know. But you would never guess that from the recently announced next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The WUT has not booked a solo pianist for the 2022-23 season.

Here is a link to the lineup for the next season:

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/

Is The Ear the only one who has noticed and is disappointed?

Who else feels bad about it?

After all, this is the same presenting organization that brought to Madison such legendary pianists as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, Percy Grainger, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Dame Myra Hess, Guiomar Novaes, Egon Petri, Robert Casadesus, William Kapell, Claudio Arrau, Alexander Brailowsky, Gary Graffman, Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Byron Janis, Misha Dichter, Peter Serkin, André Watts, Lili Kraus and Garrick Ohlsson

It is the same hall (below) in which The Ear has heard Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Valentina Lisitsa, Andras Schiff, Joyce Yang, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk, Ingrid Fliter, Richard Goode, Leon Fleisher, Simone Dinnerstein, Wu Han and so many other great and memorable names including, of course, Emanuel Ax.

What a history!

As you can see and as The Ear likes to say, the Wisconsin Union Theater is “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” For over 100 years, it is where the great ones play.

One irony is that many of those former bookings of pianists took place when the University of Wisconsin School of Music had many more pianists on the faculty and provided a major alternative venue for piano recitals.

Another irony is that so many young people take piano lessons (below) and are apt to want to attend, probably with their parents, to hear a live professional concert piano recital. You would think the WUT would also see the advantages of having such community outreach links to the public and to music education, especially since the WUT has hosted Open Piano Day for the public. (See the YouTube video of a Channel 3000 story in February 2020 at the bottom.)

From what The Ear reads, there are lots of up-and-coming pianists, many affordable names of various winners of national and international competitions. They should be affordable as well as worthy of being introduced to the Madison public.

But that seems a mission now largely left to the Salon Piano Series.

Plus, so many of the new pianists are young Asians who have never appeared here, which should be another draw for the socially responsible and diversity-minded WUT.

But that is another story for another day.

What do you think of the WUT not presenting a solo pianist next season?

Maybe there will be a pianist booked for the 2023-24 season.

What pianists would you like see booked by the WUT student programming committee?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Should the 1812 Overture be played this Fourth of July?

May 2, 2022
9 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently noticed that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has once again scheduled the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky (below) as part of the finale of its Fourth of July concert on the evening of July 6, 2022.

The performance is part of this summer’s FREE Concerts on the Square (COS) by the WCO that run on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 29 through Aug. 3. Concerts start at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, and will be conducted by Andrew Sewell.

For more information about the series and individual performers and programs, go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square

An asterisk says programs are subject to change.

Which got The Ear to thinking: Should Tchaikovsky’s perennial favorite, the flashy and loud  1812 Overture, be played again this year?

It is a tradition that was started on Independence Day in 1974 by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops, according to reputable sources. 

But this year might be a very different case because of a quandary that might cause organizers, including PBS’ “A Capitol Fourth,” to rethink the program. 

It is a choice that will confront many musical groups across the U.S., given the current unprovoked brutality and and war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine.

After all, many music groups, including the Metropolitan Opera, have already banned Russian performers who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his unjustified war in Ukraine (below).

So here’s the question: Is it appropriate to play a favorite work celebrating a Russian military victory while Ukraine, the United States and Western allies, including NATO, are desperately trying to defeat Russian forces?

As you may recall, the overture was inspired by Russia’s victory over the invading forces of Napoleon who was attempting go conquer Russia. Like Hitler and the Nazis, Napoleon failed and the Russians prevailed. That is why, in the work, you hear the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” overcome by the chimes and cannons of the Russian victory hymn. (There was no Russian national anthem until 1815.)

Here is a link to more background in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_Overture

Will the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or other orchestras as well as radio and TV stations around the U.S. find a substitute piece? Perhaps it could be the Ukrainian national anthem that is performed (as in the BBC Proms concert in the YouTube video at the bottom and as many other orchestras around the world, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain, have done).

What else could the WCO and other groups play — especially since Sousa marches are already usually featured on The Fourth?

Do you have a suggestion?

The Ear will be interested to see how the quandary is solved — with explanations and excuses, or with alternative music?

Meanwhile, as comedian Stephen Colbert likes to say: What do you think?

Should the “1812 Overture” be played on this Fourth of July?

Why?

Or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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