The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You Must Hear This -– the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch.

October 26, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

I saw and heard Madison-born and Madison-raised violist Vicki Powell (below) last Wednesday night. That was when the alumna of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the UW-Madison School of Music, the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute  who now plays with the New York Philharmonic and other prestigious groups and who has participated in the Marlboro and Aspen festivals, returned from New York City to solo with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Vicki Powell at MCO

It was a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable performance as well as very affordable event, as you can read in the review by John W. Barker that was posted yesterday.

Here is a link:

After the concert done in the terrific 90-minute, no intermission format that I think attracts many people, there was a meet-and-greet, with cookies and punch, where the public and the musicians could mingle – and did.

MCO June 2014 reception

That’s when I went up to the lovely, gifted and poised Vicki Powell and remarked on how beautiful her playing had been with the MCO under conductor Steve Kurr (below top). I was quite taken with her reading of the rarely heard Fantasy on Themes by Mozart for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below bottom).

Hummel remains a much underappeciated composer who was invited by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself to live in his house and take free lessons.

Vicki Powell and Steve Kurr MCO finale


But what really swept me away was the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by the 19th-century Romantic German composer Max Bruch (below).

max bruch

I have heard Max Bruch’s popular violin concertos – especially No. 1  in G minor — and his Kol Nidre for cello and piano as well as his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra.

But this work was completely new and unknown to me, but captivated me from the first notes. No 10 listenings or more needed to like and appreciate this work!

“I am amazed it hasn’t yet been used for a movie soundtrack,” I said to Powell.

“Really?” she said. “So am I.”

That is how beautiful and tuneful, how accessible and emotional, it is.

And maybe you will be surprised too.

So here is a YouTube video of the work performed by violist Miles Hoffman, who also comments frequently on classical music for NPR (National Public Radio). It lasts about 9-1/2 minutes and is pure loveliness.

Miles Hoffman NPR

And maybe it has indeed been used in the movies.

If so and you know, please let us know.

And let us know what you think of the piece, which The Ear thinks deserves to be programmed much more often, even though the viola is not often featured as a solo instrument with orchestra. (All the more reason to admire the Middleton Community Orchestra and its mission.)

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music Q&A: Violinist and master teacher Eugene Purdue offers tips and his “secrets” about learning, practicing and performing through music education.

December 6, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

I knew the Madison-based violinist and violin teacher Eugene Purdue only by name and reputation – several years ago, he was one of the few Americans ever to perform in North Korea during a Quaker festival. But I had never met him in person until very recently.

Over dinner with other musicians, we discussed some aspects of teaching and performing. His thoughtful and original, yet common sensical and practical, advice persuaded me to ask him if he would consider doing an email Q&A for this blog. I was sure many music students, and many listeners and parents alike, would appreciate his insights as much as I did.

Gene, who with his violist wife was a founding member of the Thouvenel String Quartet in Midland, Texas, consented.

The resulting email interview (illustrated blow with photos by Thomas C. Stringfellow) is highly informative and helpful, and speaks to the quality of both the music students and the music teachers that the Madison area is fortunate to have.

Should you want to contact Gene Purdue (below) for yourself, you can do so through the Independent String Teachers of Madison. Here is a link:

Can you give us a capsule summary with highlights and turning points of your own career in studying performing and teaching? 

I started my career as the first violinist of the Thouvenel String Quartet (below). We had a residency in Texas and did a lot of touring. We played in most of the major venues in the US as well as touring internationally. Highlights would be playing the major chamber music venues in New York as well as the Kennedy Center, a four-concert series in Vienna and a highly successful European tour that included playing in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Also, we were one of the first classical groups to tour China giving “western” style concerts in 1985. A second tour of China included a concert in Lhasa, Tibet for Jimmy Carter and the Panchen Lama, which was pretty cool. That was the most Secret Service that I have played for.

(For a highly positive review of a Carnegie Hall performance by the Thouvenel Quartet from The New York Times, visit:

Was there an Aha! Moment – perhaps a performer or a piece – when you knew you wanted to play the violin professionally.

 My “Aha! Moment” was when I heard the Oklahoma City Symphony at a children’s concert when I was in the 5th grade. Another turning point was when I went to Indiana University to study. I was very fortunate to be there at a great time when I could study with legendary teachers and have unbelievable colleagues. Another turning point for me was when my wife, Sally Chisholm, and I decided to move to Madison so that she could become the violist of the Pro Arte Quartet. That was when I became a full-time teacher.

How does a parent know when it’s the right age for a child to start music lessons? How and when did you start?

The sooner, the better. The Suzuki programs, for instance, specialize in preschoolers. I don’t think you can predict which kid will take to it; you just give them the chance and see if they respond. If they don’t, wait a while and try again. One thing to keep in mind is that learning to play a string instrument is very difficult in the beginning. It usually takes a while for the student to get comfortable with it, so persevere and be patient.

There are a lot of concerto competitions for young people in Madison – including the Madison Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerts and Final Forte, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Youth Concerto Competition, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras competition and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Neale Silva Young Artists Competition. You have trained a lot of the participants and winners. Can you remind us of their names?  

My students that have been winners of the competitions that you mentioned are to the best of my recollection: Eric Nowlin, Rebekah Wolkstein, Nathaniel Wolkstein, Derek Powell, Vicki Powell, Krista Stewart, Alice Huang, Leslie Huang, Ben Seeger, Beth Larson, Lydia Sewell, Megan Whip, Paul Sekulski (seen below performing with WYSO last spring), Valerie Sanders and Tony Oliva. I apologize if I left someone out.

How does that speak to the quality of music students and music teachers in the Madison area in your experience?

Of course most of your readers are aware of what a culturally active community Madison is. But I think we sometimes overlook the quality of what’s happening on the high school and younger levels here. Madison music students who have won national and even international competitions haven’t gotten a lot of attention. Of course I’m sure that is also true of academics. It seems that sports get much more attention — and that’s coming from a sports fan (Go Bucky! Go Packers!).

The WYSO (Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, below) program, for instance, I think can compete with similar programs in much bigger cities. Also, there have been a couple of very interesting concerts given by our private teacher group, The Independent String Teachers of Madison (IST). It is a “showcase” concert where we feature the entire spectrum of Madison string students. You can really see how much interest there is and what good teaching there is on every level here.

What do you tell your young music students about performing in public in general and competing in competitions in particular? What is your advice about overcoming stage fright and nerves? 

Concerning stage fright, for me the No. 1 secret is to perform as often as possible. The more you do it, the easier it is; and the less you do it, the harder it is. In my studio I try to have two recitals a month, so that my students have ample opportunity to perform.

Another important point is breathing. To be in control, you must use abdominal breathing. If not, you can spiral out of control. Also, your technique needs to be solid and of course, you need to know your piece really well. My basic feeling about nerves is that nerves don’t cause problems; they reveal problems.

In preparing for a performance, I recommend that you include in your daily practice, something that I call performing practice. This is where you imagine that you are performing in an actual performing venue with an imaginary audience.

It is good to make it as specific as you can. If you know the place that you’ll be performing, then imagine it. For instance, if a student is preparing for a competition with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, I tell them to imagine they are playing in Overture Hall and are accompanied by the Madison Symphony with an imaginary audience. If you don’t know the venue, then imagine yourself in a venue that you know.

How healthy are competitions and performing for students?

Concerning competitions, I think the first thing is to understand and accept what they are. They are a judged event for which there is no set criteria. It means that it is up to each judge to set their own criteria. So, you can’t predict what criteria will win. I think in many competitions that if you change the judges, you change the outcome.

So for me, you can’t make winning the goal. For me the goal is to use the competition as stimulus to improve and to play a good performance at the competition. These are goals that you can control. It is easier said than done, but it is what I try to teach my students (and myself).

How has teaching music, and violin or strings in particular, changed since you were a young student or first started teaching?

I think the teaching of technique has improved. One thing my generation has brought to pedagogy is how to use the body better by applying things like Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, for example.

Another thing I have tried to do is to streamline things so that you can accomplish more in less time. I would point out that most of the standard violin exercises were written at a time when you were expected to practice 6 or more hours a day. Today, very few high school kids could spend that kind of time.

I do have one worry, though, and that is that we have lost some musical understanding that our predecessors had.

Posted in Classical music

Classical Music news update: University of Wisconsin-Madison trained violists win two top spots at Primrose Comeptition

June 6, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is just a quick update to follow through on my post Sunday about the violists who were trained at the University of Wisconsin School of Music and who competed in the 6th William Primrose International Viola Competition that ended Sunday night.

Here are the final results:

UW alum Elias Goldstein (below) captured Second Prize ($3,000 and a new viola bow) and the Director’s Award:

Native Madisonian and UW alum Vicki Powell (below) captured Third Prize ($1,000 and a special bow):

First Prize went to Ayane Kozasa.

Here is a link to the competition’s Web site with complete results, video and audio archives and other details. Click on “Results” and “News”:

Finally, congratulations to UW professor Sally Chisholm (below), who plays in the Pro Arte String Qaurtet, and who taught the two prize-winners.

Comments and messages of good will, anyone?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music alerts: Hear the finals today of the Primrose International Viola Competition, with two Madison-trained players; also hear today Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Brahms; and the Green Lake Music Festival at Ripon College opens this week.

June 5, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

I have three items to pass along today. One is the William Primrose International Viola Competition; the second is the live simulcast performance today by the Los AngelesPhilharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel; and the third concerns the opening this week of this summer’s Green Lake Festival.


Thanks to a good friend of this blog, The Ear knows that today’s finals of the 13th annual William Primrose International Viola Competition — named for the famed violist (below) —  will be held and streamed live today, Sunday, June 5, from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It runs from 10:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night, CDT.

Elias Goldstein (below top), who received his doctorate in May and Vicki Powell (below bottom), who is from Madison and is currently studying at Juilliard, are competing.

“Many local music lovers know both of these musicians and would not mind hearing more about their successes,” comments the friend. The finals are Sunday afternoon, streamed live at:

Click under schedule to see times, and then under links for stream in HD.

Both performers studied with UW-Madison professor Sally Chisholm, who plays in the Pro Arte String Quartet, and who is on a roll. Another of her students, Daniel Kim, won Wisconsin Public Radio’s Neal Silva Young Artists Competition and will pursue his graduate studies this fall at Juilliard with the famous Samuel Rhodes, the founding violist with the Juilliard String Quartet who often performs in Madison with the Pro Arte.

I also think that Internet streaming is one of the hi-tech blessings for classical music fans. Just last week, I streamed the semi-finals and finals of the Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. And I think many other competitions, including the Gilmore piano competition and the Indianapolis Violin Competition, are streamed.

If this keeps up, music competitions may eventually rival watching live sports matches – or so we can hope.

Anyway, stay tuned and hope for the best for our local talent, and we’ll see how our Madison competitors do us proud.


I offer a reminder:  At 4 p.m. today, Sunday, June 5,  the last of this season’s three live simulcast performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) will take place. The program is all-Brahms, with the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, featuring the Capucon brothers, and the powerful Symphony No. 4. The host is John Lithgow. Tickets to the 2-1/2 hour program at the Eastgate and Point Cinemas are $16.


The Green Lake Festival of Music, which has taken place at scenic  Ripon College every summer since 1979, will open its 2011 summer season this week.

The festival starts with two concerts on Wednesday (a seniors concert at 1:30 p.m. at the Thrasher Opera House, below) and Friday (a season preview at 7:30 p.m. in the Thrasher Opera House).

The first concert features violinist Samantha George (below top), and the second features young prize-winning pianist David Ko (below middle) in solo repertoire and with a young flutist (below bottom) Ryan Zerna.

The award-winning festival features all kinds of music and both famous and unknown musicians. For a schedule of dates and times, a list of performers and works, ticket prices and reservations, and other details, visit:

If you don’t know about the festival, here is some background:

And if you want to know more about Green Lake, including directions and statistics, visit:,_Wisconsin

The festival runs through July 24.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music: The piano played an important role in the life of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democracy party just triumphed over the military in the election held this past week in Myanmar, or Burma.

November 14, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Often we lose a sense of the importance of music to non-musicians and to life outside the concert hall and conservatory or school of music.

Which is a reminder why supporting this weekend’s concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras has social and educational as well as artistic meaning. Here is a link to the WYSO schedules and programs;

But this past week the world also received a vivid and dramatic reminder of just how important music can be in the life of the non-musical world.

It has to do with the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. That is the party led by the democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (below) – or The Lady, as her compatriots and supporters simply refer to her.

aung san suu kyi

During her 20 years of house arrest by the military, the piano helped her keep her sanity and her resolve.

And hearing her play the piano also reassured her neighbors outside her home in Yangon (Rangoon) about her emotional and mental health.

Exercise, study and playing the piano (below) all proved key during the 20 years of house arrest imposed  by the military on the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

It is also worth noting that to honor her, on its 50th anniversary, the famous Leeds international Piano Competition in Great Britain in the United Kingdom renamed its top Gold Medal in her honor. 

Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan even wrote and performed a special song, “Unplayed Piano,” for Suu Kyi in honor of her 60th birthday in 2005. You can hear it in there Youtube video at the bottom.

Aung San Suu Kyi playing piano

Here is an overview:

And here is another story with more specific details, including her favorite composers – Bach, Telemann, Mozart, Clementi, Pachelbel and Bartok — and how piano tuners, when finally allowed by the military to repair her piano, dealt with the forcefulness with which she sometimes played as well as with the effects of the hot and humid climate:



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