The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Paul Watkins -– the new British cellist in the New York-based Emerson String Quartet who replaces 34-year-veteran and Emerson co-founder David Finckel.

June 9, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The end of this concert season has meant something special for fans of American chamber music.

It means the end of cellist David Finckel (below) playing with the venerated and globally acclaimed Emerson String Quartet, often called the best string quartet in the world. And it has performed frequently in Madison, always at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

David Finckel BIG

Finckel announced at the beginning of last season that he would retire. He has said he wants to devote more time to his solo career; to his duo performances with his pianist wife Wu Han (below); to concerts of piano trios with his wife and Emerson violinist Philip Setzer; and to his job as co-director (with his pianist wife Wu Han) of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

David Finckel and Wu Han

Still, it is a loss. Finckel was an original member of the Emerson Quartet (below) and has played with them for 34 years, winning many Grammy awards and rave reviews in the process. The quartet is so good, one wonders just what it took in the way of money and artistic freedom to lure the quartet away from its longtime recording home of Deutsche Grammophon to its new home Sony Classical.


Something The Ear particularly liked about Finckel is that he often played on and recorded with instruments that are made today.

Apparently, the quartet considered disbanding but decided instead to replace Finckel.

The choice was Paul Watkins (below), a distinguished British or, more specifically, Welsh cellist who was born in 1970 and who was a member of the Nash Ensemble, which is also acclaimed for its performances and prolific recordings, before joining the Emerson.

Paul Watkins

He remains someone to be discovered through his performances, but here is a fine interview with Watkins:

And here is a review of a performance in Montreal of Haydn. Beethoven and Bartok string quartets that featured the new Emerson Quartet with Paul Watkins. It is promising indeed, as is his performance of Francis Poulenc‘s cello sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.

What do you think of David Finckel? Any good wishes or other things you want to leave in the COMMENTS section?

And what do you know about or think of cellist Paul Watkins?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music Q&A: Who will replace the famed Beaux Arts Trio? Cellist David Finckel, violinist Philip Setzer and Pianist Wu Han of the Emerson String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center talk about their all-Mendelssohn concert this Friday at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison.

February 20, 2012
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ALERT: Want to sing through Haydn’s great oratorio “The Creation”? Then consider going to the FREE Madison Symphony Chorus Community Open Sing! this Tuesday night from 7:30 to 9:30 in the Wisconsin Room of the Overture Center. Scores will be provided and all levels are welcome. You’ll join members of the Madison Symphony Chorus and conductor-director Beverly Taylor, along with choristers from all over the community.  Taylor will lead singersl in a brief rehearsal of the main choruses.Then the public will sing them through with arias sung by soloists from the UW-Madison School of Music. (On Tuesday, March 20, the same group will do Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah.”)

By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist David Finckel made news last week when he announced that after 36 years he would retire at the end of next season from the critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet (below, with Finckel on the far right).By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a link to an NPR story about his retirement:

One of the reasons Finckel gave for the move — he will be replaced in 2013 by British cellist Paul Watkins — was to devote himself to other enterprises, including running the CD label (ArtistLed) and co-directing the famed Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, both of which he does with his wife, pianist Wu Han.

Another reason Finckel gave for retiring from the Emerson will be to devote himself to other forms of chamber music – which makes this Friday’s concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison all the more timely, notable and even newsworthy.

On Friday night at 7:30 is when celllist Finckel and his wife Wu Han will team up with Emerson Quartet violinist Philip Setzer to perform both piano trios and a cello sonata in an all-Mendelssohn program.

It is a mark of the prestige these performers are held in that the concert is officially designated the Fan Taylor Memorial Concert. Each season the Wisconsin Union Theater names a concert in honor of Taylor, the pioneering university arts presenter who founded the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series and led it for many decades.

Here is link to more information, including ticket prices, a video and reviews, of Friday night’s concert by the Finckel, Setzer and Wu, Han Trio:

Could this trio become the new Beaux Arts Trio? David Finckel and Wu Han (below) took time out from their hectic schedule to answer an email Q&A for The Ear about their upcoming concert:

Speaking as members of the Emerson String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, how healthy would you say the state of chamber music in America is today compared to the past?

DAVID FINCKEL: Chamber music varies, as do all classical music and serious art forms in America, from very healthy to endangered, depending upon the integrity, commitment of the local presenter and the engagement and support of the community.

We are often encouraged or alarmed when we travel to see different results in different communities. However, we always find intelligent, passionate audience in many different corners of the world.

We find if chamber music is presented in the best way – with intimacy and passion — the audience is always inspired. Because of that, we found through our role in the Emerson Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, chamber music continues to be a big part of many people’s lives.

How and why did the three of you start a piano trio?

WU HAN: We all love the same repertoire and have enjoyed making music together for quite a long time. It all started with the two Schubert trios (Note: Those trios are available in an exceptional recording, below bottom,  from Artist Led and you can hear some of them at the bottom.) David and I knew Phil Setzer (below top) would be the perfect partner to record with because we all feel very deeply and similarly about that music.

It was such a success that we continued with the Mendelssohn trios now. We don’t know if this trio will continue, but we are letting the repertoire guide us.

Why did you choose an all-Mendelssohn program? Could you give a short introduction to each piece you will play and what you think its importance is or what the audience should listen for?

DAVID FINCKEL: Mendelssohn (below) was not only one of the most skilled and devoted musicians of all time, but his music appeals to a broad spectrum of the public — from those who are musical experts to new listeners.  His ingenious voice well deserves an entire evening’s attention.

The Trio in D Minor, Mendelssohn’s first, shows him in a stormy mood for its outer movements, and offers both a song without words and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” experience in its middle movements. There’s something for everyone in this trio.

The second Trio in C Minor is a more advanced work in terms of its structure, with a final movement that contains extraordinary innovations. Listen for the quiet introducing of a hymn within a folk-inspired movement, and follow its progress towards the conclusion where both ideas are reconciled. It is one of the most magical creations in all of chamber music.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major is one of Mendelssohn’s most exuberant works. Giving the lion’s share of notes to the piano, the composer nevertheless affords the cello all the main themes and uses the instrument’s signature lyrical strengths to the fullest. It’s an absolute joy to play from start to finish.

Does the piano trio as a musical form or genre lack prestige or popularity compared to the string quartet, and if so why do you think that is?

WU HAN: The piano trio, in our experience, lacks neither prestige nor popularity among classical musicians and certainly among audiences. Not as much literature exists for the piano trio as for the string quartet, though, and as a result not as many professional trios exist as do string quartets.

The challenges of playing trios well are enormous. Ever since the days when Cortot, Thibaud and Casals (below, in that order in 1926)  played trios, the public has expected world-class level of every trio’s members. The standards set by the world’s greatest trios are hard to live up to, but we try.

With the retirement of the incomparable Beaux Arts Trio (below) recently, we have found that chamber music audiences are hungry for trios. We come to Madison to feed them!

What are your plans for the trio in terms of concerts, projects and recordings?

WU HAN: Our trio is not a formally formed ensemble. We don’t even have a name! We have approached our projects simply as musically compatible friends who are eager to perform this repertoire, having always wanted to. We approach our trio’s career, if you can call it that, on a project-by-project basis. After Mendelssohn, there is another in the oven, but we can’t talk about that yet. Stay tuned.

Will you bring new string instruments as well as old ones to the concert?

DAVID FINCKEL: Philip Setzer and I will be playing the violin and cello made for us by Samuel Zygmuntowicz (below, in his workshop photographed by Melissa Hamburg), although I might bring my Guadagnini.

All three of you have performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, two of you quite often in the Emerson Quartet and the other as a solo recitalist. Do you have an impression of Madison and its audience?

WU HAN: We consider the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison one of the most important and distinguished venues in the United States. A visit backstage will reveal, via historic posters, extraordinary seasons of concerts going way back to the Golden Age of instrumental playing in the first half of the 20th century. One is conscious of the tradition of greatness, and, combined with the vibrant, youthful audience, we know it is a place where we have to play our best.

Classical music news: Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel draw a rave at the Aspen Festival. They will perform here Feb. 24 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, where single tickets are now on sale.

August 1, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Here’s a timely news item, especially now that various groups have announced their upcoming seasons and now that single tickets for events at the Wisconsin Union Theater are now on sale.

The wife-and-husband team of pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (both below) co-direct the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

On Feb. 24, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., Wu Han and David Finckel will be joined by Emerson Quartet violinist Philip Setzer for a performance at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The all-Mendelssohn program features both of the composer’s two Piano Trios and his Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Here’s a link to details, including a video, ticket prices and contacts, and other information:

Both have Wu Han and David Finckel have played here before in the Wisconsin Union Theater. Wu Han played a solo recital, and Finckel has played there many times in his role as cellist with the famed Emerson String Quartet.

Two weeks ago,, the duo filled in at the last minute for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the Aspen Festival – and received a rave review:

Posted in Classical music

Classical music profiles: Part 2 of a two-part interview with cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet about their Jan. 22 concert in Madison

January 12, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist David Finckel (below left) recently answered questions via e-mail (while he was on tour in Asia) about the Emerson String Quartet‘s upcoming concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday, Jan. 22, at 8 p.m.

The program for the Fan Taylor Memorial Concert (Taylor was the first director of the Wisconsin Union Theater) is Ives’ String Quartet No.1, Dvorak’s quartet, Op. 51, and Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 127.

Tickets are $18, $35 and $40 with $10 admission for UW students. Call 608 262-2201.

For The Ear, the combination of artists and program make this a MUST-HEAR concert. Chamber music just doesn’t get better.

Here is link to the Wisconsin Union Theater:

And here is a link to the home page for the Emerson String Quartet, which includes profiles of the members:

And here is a link to David Finckel’s home page for ArtistLed CDs, which he owns with his wife pianist Wu Han:

And here is the second and final part of my interview with David Finckel (below left):

Could you briefly comment on the works in your Madison program (Ives’ No. 1, Dvorak’ Op. 51 and Beethoven’s Op. 127)?

Our program for Madison is a quintessential Emerson program.  Beethoven’s Op. 127 is the first Beethoven quartet that I played with the Emerson, back in the 1979-80 season. It is a monumental, deeply felt work that leaves nothing un-said and no challenge ignored.  Its four movements are each worlds in themselves, long, difficult and involved.  But one feels renewed at its conclusion, no matter how tiring the experience.

The Ives is the work of a true American spirit, filled with optimism, idealism, and courage.  And the Dvorak, a heartfelt work (as all his pieces are!) is a tranquil listening experience that takes one to the old world.

The University of Wisconsin Pro Arte Quartet turns 100 next year. I remember your playing the Mendelssohn Octet with them. Do you have an opinion about the artistic and historical importance of the Pro Arte?

I wish I knew more of the history of the Pro Arte.  I know that it is one of the longest-running quartets in history, with many members changing over the years.  I love the concept of a quartet that just keeps going – because there is always some sense of tradition and style that is unique to every ensemble.  It would be very interesting to find out from the quartet what they have kept from their earlier incarnations.

What advice would you have for young aspiring string quartet, and chamber music, players today?

My advice for young quartets? Learn lots of music.  Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Remember that you are playing for the audience.  Try everyone’s interpretational ideas and don’t fight about them.

Listen to great recordings, not only by quartets but by anybody.  Listen to the Beethoven symphonies while you’re learning the Beethoven quartets.  Learn Haydn.  Learn Webern.  Learn Bartok. And learn where the music came from. Know something about the composers and their lives and times.

Practice your individual parts and come to rehearsals being able to play in time and in tune.  Scrutinize your own playing under the highest expectations.  Don’t waste your colleagues’ time, ever.

I could go on.

What is the secret to the quality and longevity of the Emerson? And how do you balance your chamber music career with a solo career and with your duties co-directing the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (below right) with your wife pianist Wu Han (below left)?

We have been together more than three decades.  Our friendship is solid but we are really driven by the work itself.  There is so much to do, just to play everything we are committed to, and to do it at the level that people have come to expect of us.

That’s not getting any easier in some respects, but in other ways, we have become more and more confident musically as we have gained perspective.

There is no such thing as balance with the solo career for me, not to mention the other careers I have as a presenter.  I just try to do the best I can to live up to my responsibilities everywhere, and somehow, I squeeze by.  My family still wants to live with me, which is enormously lucky for me.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music profiles: Part 1 of a two-part interview with cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet about their Jan. 22 concert in Madison

January 11, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist David Finckel (below right) recently answered questions via e-mail (while he was on tour in Asia) about the Emerson String Quartet and its upcoming concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday, Jan. 22, at 8 p.m.

The program for the Fan Taylor Memorial Concert (Taylor was the first director of the Wisconsin Union Theater) is Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, Dvorak’s quartet, Op. 51, and Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 127.

Tickets are $18, $35 and $40 with $10 admission for UW students. Call 262-2201.

For The Ear, the combination of artists and program make this a MUST-HEAR concert. Chamber music just doesn’t get better.

Here is link to the Wisconsin Union Theater:

And here is a link to the home page for the Emerson String Quartet, which includes profiles of the members:

And here is a link to David Finckel’s home page for ArtistLed CDs, which he owns with his wife pianist Wu Han:

And here is Part 1 of my interview with David Finckel, who studied with famed celllist Mstislav Rostropovich:

Chamber music has the reputation of drawing older listeners, much like classical music in general. What, if anything, can be done – and what do you and your wife pianist Wu Han do at the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society – to reach younger listeners and a wider audience? Or is it just something that one grows into as one matures in listening habits and likes?

I have never believed that just because people become older they somehow magically come to like classical music.  There are other factors involved – free time, no kids to take care of, a tiring of popular culture – that may well lead people to become more engaged with the art.  But that can happen to younger people as well.

There’s not much one can do with chamber music especially to make it more interesting than it already is. People have to come to it, not the other way around. It is not as visually diverse as a symphony or opera performance.  But if one becomes involved, the art form presents myriad opportunities for fulfillment.

The most important thing we do in presenting is truth in advertising – not to promise anything other than what the real experience will be.

This, we believe, will gain the trust of new listeners, and getting the trust of your public is the most essential element of building and keeping an audience.

As I recall, you often play cellos made today as well as great old instruments. How do they compare with old ones?

Regarding cellos, yes, I’m a great fan of contemporary makers and believe that a really fine new instrument can be the best asset for serious and aspiring young player.

Except for the finest early instruments, in the best condition, the great new ones are infinitely better in every way: volume and richness of tone, ease of playing, reliability and stability, not to mention cost.

You and the quartet (and your wife Wu Han, below) have played concerts in Madison several times. Do you have any recollections or impressions of the city and its classical music audiences? Of the Wisconsin Union Theater?

Our impression of Wisconsin Union Theater are indelible, and they are mostly so because of the distinguished history of concerts.  The posters backstage remind everyone who plays there that they have been preceded by the greatest performers the world has every known.  So you have to live up to the standard the venue has set, and to become a worthy part of its legacy.

Your new Emerson CD “Intimate Letters,” with music of Janacek and Martinu, is up for a Grammy. What are your plans for your next CD or two? Is there any chance of a second Haydn Project since he wrote so many great quartets?

At the moment, the Emerson is involved in a large project of Dvorak.  We have to get that out the door before we consider the next repertoire.  There are still many quartets that we would like to record, even though we’ve made so many recordings already.  We are really very fortunate.

What do you think of the state of string quartet composing today? Are there specific composers or new quartets (music) that you admire and add to your repertoire?

String quartet composing is just as challenging today as it was in the time that Haydn set new standards that everyone had to live up to. Many living composers have embarked on ambitious, multi-quartet cycles, among them Carter, Harbison, Wernick, Tsontakis, Widmann.  One of the final compositions of the late Leon Kirchner was his fifth quartet, and the whole cycle was recently recorded by the Orion Quartet. Most important for us is that a composer understands the capabilities and limitations of the instruments, and that they have a true sense of chamber music conversational style.

Are there younger string quartets (St. Lawrence, Pacific, Orion, Brentano) that you think are especially promising for the future of chamber music?

All of the young string quartets that you mention ARE the future of chamber music, along with many of their colleagues.  These groups are truly modern in the sense that they know, as young artists do today, that they must make their own careers, and that there’s no real “industry” left to do that anymore.  All the young groups are very well equipped and passionate.  We are counting on them.

What is the state of string quartets in the U.S. today?

I don’t think there are more professional quartets now than earlier.  I have heard that there has actually been a severe reduction in the number since the early 1980s. I do know that we see fewer and fewer quartets and real classical chamber ensembles on series around this country.  Many series have mixed in other disciplines, and this has not developed the classical listenership.

Tomorrow: David Finckel speaks about its Madison program,  the UW Pro Arte String Quartet, and offers advice to young chamber music players .

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: Court victories favoring same-sex marriage equality and an extended Valentine’s Day weekend add up to a magical and loving mix for musical partners, including opera star Patricia Racette, who comes out as a lesbian.

February 16, 2014

ALERT: If you are undecided about going to this afternoon’s concert at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with Norwegian trumpet soloist Tine Thing Helseth (below), here are links to positive reviews by John W. Barker for Isthmus and by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine’s blog “Classically Speaking”:

Tine Thing Helseth big profile

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, when a holiday falls on a Friday – like Valentine’s Day this year — one can be forgiven for prolonging it over the weekend, don’t you think?

But it seems a good chance to blend two recent stories and trend lines that are increasingly coming together.

And coming out.

One is the recent various court victories for marriage equality, or same-sex marriage, or gay marriage. Whatever you want to call it, it seems to becoming more and more a legal and social reality with every week that passes.

gay marriage in suits

And those legal victories lead to more and more gays and lesbians coming out, including the star football player and top NFL draft possibility star Michael Sam (below top) and “Juno” actress Ellen Page (below bottom).

Here is a link to a New York Times story about Michael Sam:

Michael Sam in football uniform

And here is a link to a Washington Post story about Ellen Page:

Ellen Page

As for Valentine’s Day, imagine what how rewarding it could be to work cooperatively in the performing arts with your life partner and love.

That is exactly what was documented in a recent story on NPR’s great blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

NPR highlighted various musical couples in classical music who met in a musical setting and fell in love while working, and who now get to work together.

And for good measure, they included the Metropolitan Opera star soprano Patricia Racette (below top, out of costume, and below bottom in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca”), who openly talks about what a great marriage she has with her female partner. (You can hear Patricia Racette as the title character Cio-Cio-San sing the finale of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Patricia Racette soprano

Patricia Racette in Tosca

Of course, most of the couples are heterosexual in the story just as they are in real life. And we have seen some of them – tenor Stephen Costello (below top) at the Madison Opera‘s Opera in the Park as well as cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han (below bottom) at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in Madison.

Fort Worth Opera 2008

Wu Han and David Finckel BIG

But it is both sensitive and brave of NPR, which is always under the gun and budget knife of the self-righteous and nutty right-wing extremists and homophobes, to do the story.

Here is a link:

One can only hope and imagine the chain reaction that is to happen as each coming out brings several more, as bravery and tolerance build, and as the visible becomes visible.

Saint Valentine -– at least my Saint Valentine — would be very pleased.

Saint Valentine

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Classical music: From Palestrina to Part, the pioneering early music vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble will disband into silence in 2014. Plus, the date for the next Handel Aria Competition is set for July 17 during this summer’s Madison Early Music Festival.

January 9, 2014

ALERT: Mark your calendars and datebooks. The second annual Handel Aria Competition — with an encore appearance by the winner last summer — that is sponsored by local business owners Dean and Orange Schroeder will take place on July 17, 2014 as part of the annual Madison Early Music Festival. Last summer, the “slam down” format proved to be a lot of fun, as you can see for yourself if you revisit my coverage with these links:

Handel etching

By Jacob Stockinger

The pioneering early music vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble (below) has sounded another sour note to open the new year in classical music.

The ensemble, founded in 1973 and celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, will disband in 2014 after one last world tour, according to a story on NPR’s excellent classical music blog “Deceptive Candence.”

hilliard ensemble portrait

One has to wonder: How many more unfortunate events like this will we see as the Baby Boomer generation — which also fed and fostered the early music revival — ages and falls ill, then decides to retire or perhaps even dies?

Already we have seen some string quartets like the Guarneri and Tokyo  (below), decide to disband, although the venerable Emerson Quartet has decided to continue on after cellist David Finckel retired and was replaced by Paul Watkins, formerly of the British Nash Ensemble. The Hilliard Ensemble has only one of its original members still singing.


Unlike so many other early music groups, the Hilliard Ensemble specialized in late Medieval and Renaissance music rather than the more popular and well-known Baroque music and composers. Their specialities included works by Giovanni da Palestrina, Carlo Gesualdo, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tallis and Josquin Des Prez plus a host of generally unknown names (like the work by William Cornish in the YouTube video at the bottom.). But they also did perform Baroque music and especially made headlines when they revealed parallels between certain Bach works on the CD “Morimur.”

hilliard ensemble singing

The Hilliard Ensemble was also eclectic and adventurous. In its extensive catalogue of recordings, mostly on the innovative and inventive ECM label – an ideal home for the Hilliard Ensemble — it also performed music with best-selling New Age jazz saxophonist Jan Gabarek as well as the complete Bach motets. And they also recorded several works by the living popular Estonian composer Arvo Part.

Here is a link to see their impressive and extensive discography and impressive user review at

And to top it off, the members of the Hilliard Ensemble themselves set the tone for receiving this news with their calm acceptance of the end of their era and their mission, successfully accomplished.

Here is a link to the NPR story:

Classical music: Let us praise musicians who played outdoors this summer and remember the challenges they faced.

September 8, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Apparently the composer Johannes Brahms was very fond of going to outdoors concerts in his native Vienna.

No surprise. There is something liberating and social, something relaxed and informal, for both players and listeners about hearing music outdoors. (Below is the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performing under its music director and conductor Andrew Sewell at the state Capitol.)

Concerts on Square WCO orchetsra

As summer comes to a close and fall approaches, it is good to recall that we in Madison are lucky to have so many outdoors musical events and so many of high quality.

During this past summer, for example, outdoor concerts were given by: the Madison Symphony Orchestra in its Concert in the Park; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in its justly popular Concerts on the Square; the Madison Opera for its “Opera in the Park” (below); and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras in its Concert in the Park. And there are many others who could be named.

Opera in Park 2012 crowd 2 James Gill

Then too, I think of so much other kinds of music, usually non-classical and very often roots music such as folk and bluegrass, that gets performed at various outdoors venues from the Wisconsin Memorial Union’s Lakefront Terrace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, La Fete de Marquette, the inaugural Make Music Madison Festival and the Orton Park Festival to little groups of musicians that play informally at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and various other farmers’ markets in the area.

Farmers Market music

Yet there are serious challenges to performing outdoors that non-musicians may not know about that are easy for the public to overlook. (Check out the YouTube video at the bottom and its advice from London about playing outdoors.)

Corinna da Fonsecca-Wollheim of the New York Times recently wrote about some of those challenges as an outdoors concert at the bandshell in Central Park by the acclaimed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center was gearing up to perform its first-ever outdoor concert, of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Antonin Dvorak, for the Naumburg Orchestra Concerts.

It is a very well done story with sources including the concert veteran and former Emerson String Quartet cellist David Finckel (below) and others. And her reporting gets quite specific about the challenges from keeping instrument in tune and playing the music to taking care of instruments and securing music in the stand.

Here is a link to a story that should remind us of what we can be grateful for this past summer and what we can look forward to next summer:

Do you play music outdoors?

What stories or anecdotes and experiences can you share with others about the challenges of playing music outdoors?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music news: Let us now praise the Tokyo String Quartet, which will disband after 40 years.

April 24, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, in Madison we partied as we celebrated the last of this season’s four concerts, lecture series and world premieres of commissioned works marking the centennial of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet.

There were lectures, a dinner, a question-and-answer session with American composer John Harbison and UK musicologist/music journalist Tully Potter; and a dessert reception after a FREE concert (below) that included Haydn’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 54, No. 2; Franck’s Quartet in D major; and the world premiere of John Harbison’s Quartet No. 5, commissioned by the Pro Arte.

The Pro Arte, you may recall, started in 1912 at the Belgium Conservatory in Brussels, then became the royal court quartet and got marooned in Madison when Hitler invaded their homeland in May of 1940 while they were on tour, playing a Beethoven cycle in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

So 100 years is a world record for a quartet.

Just how very impressive that fact is came home again when I learned that the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet (below) is going to disband at the end of next season – after 40 years of existence — instead of finding two replacements for two retiring original members.

They had already replaced two of the original members and changed record labels from RCA to Harmonia Mundi. The quartet has won major prizes at both labels.

The Tokyo is not alone. String quartets, and there are many of them right now, come and go.

Over decades,  the constant practicing and performing, touring and recording,  can be a strenuous way to earn a living and live a life. It takes a toll.

A few years back, it was the wonderful Guarneri Quartet, which recorded with pianist Artur Rubinstein in the 1960s and 1970s,  that disbanded. (The Guarneri played at the Wisconsin Union Theater during its farewell tour.)

The Emerson Quartet is still together and performing after some 35 years but is replacing is retiring cellist David Finckel who performed Mendelssohn’s two piano trios at the Wisconsin Union Theater this season with his pianist wide Wu Han and Emerson violinist Phillip Setzer.

I also heard the Tokyo Quartet at least once and probably more at the Wisconsin Union Theater. I especially recall a performance they gave of a Shostakovich quartet.

But they were also known for two complete Beethoven cycles plus Schubert and Mozart cycles. Of the two Beethoven cycles I especially love the six early Op. 18 quartets they recorded for a second cycle for Harmonia Mundi (below), although many listeners will prefer the middle and late quartets, pro their Dvorak, or Tchaikovsky, or their Debussy (at bottom). But I’m just a sucker for early Beethoven!

Anyway, cheers again to the Pro Arte and here is the story about the break up of the Tokyo, which allied itself to Japanese schools and then to Yale University as it followed the academic affiliation model pioneered by the Pro Arte Quartet when they became artists-in-residence at the UW after being exiled here.

Here is the story about the Tokyo Quartet ‘s approaching end:

And here is a link to a live concert by the Tokyo Quartet on April 7 of Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. It is available for streaming from the New York City radio station WQXR via NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

Enjoy, and let’s relish the music we have left to hear from the Tokyo Quartet – both live and whatever they have “in the can” for recordings.

And finally: Thank you, Tokyo String Quartet, for so much beauty over so many years.

Are cellists the most friendly and sociable players in classical music?

March 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I like festivals.

I also like cellists.

Combine the two, and you have a good thing.

A very good thing.

Just ask, if you could, that most famous cellist and festival founder  of all, Pablo Casals (below), the man who rediscovered and rehabilitated the solo cello suites of J.S. Bach.

But is the old story about cellists being the most friendly and sociable (or is it social?) of all instrument players in classical music true?

Singers might be even more social, especially given the collaborative nature of opera and choral singing.

But I have indeed found that it is very often the cellists who speak for string quartets. Locally, I have spoken with cellists Parry Karp (below), Karl Lavine, Janet Greive, Sarah Schaffer and Benjamin Whitcomb, among others. And the rule holds up.

All the cellists I have interviewed as individuals or orchestra players are also a pleasure to deal with. They often have hearty laughs and a whimsical sense of fun.

They also very often seem to preserve a sense of proportion and to act as the peacemakers in a group.

And in my experience even solo cellists like Alisa Weilerstein, David Finckel and Yo-Yo Ma (below) are gracious, outgoing and sociable.

What is it about the cello and cellists that make them that way?

Could it be because the cello’s tone is so close to the human voice?

Could it be that you learn to offer help to and accept help from others when you lug around a big instrument and pay for a second plane seat on the airplane?

Could it be you feel especially close and human as a musician when you wrap your legs around your instrument?

Could it be the kind of music, very songful and lyrical music, that cellists so often play?

Could it be all of the above, or many of the above in some combination?

Well, it turns out that my own personal impressions are not just mine.

Take a look at the following stories.

The first examines the inaugural First Piatigorsky Cello Festival in Los Angeles, overseen by cellist Ralph Kirschbaum (below), who performed a few seasons ago with the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

More to the point, using the festival’s collaborative celebration of J.S. Bach’s 327th birthday last Wednesday, the second story takes a closer look at the reputation cellists have for being amiable.

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