The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Rediscovering the music of composer Florence Price is a great way to start the celebration of Black History Month

February 3, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

February is Black History Month.

There are a lot of African-American performers and composers to emphasize during the month. Check out this exhaustive listing – conveniently organized into categories such as composers, conductors and pianists — in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:African-American_classical_musicians

But this year one of the best ways to mark the event is to rediscover the composer Florence Price (below, in photos from the University of Arkansas Libraries).

Much of her work was until recently hidden in 30 boxes in her abandoned and dilapidated summer home located 70 miles south of Chicago.

A good introduction to Price (1887-1953) – who was famous in her day and was the first African-American woman composer to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — can be found in the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR).

https://www.npr.org/2019/01/21/686622572/revisiting-the-pioneering-composer-florence-price

Here is a link to an excerpt from a new Albany recording of her two violin concertos:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/09/584312486/songs-we-love-florence-price-violin-concerto-no-2

And if you want to hear more of what her music sounds like check out the YouTube video at the bottom that has excerpts from the new Naxos recording, in the American Classics line, with her Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4.

You can also find quite a bit more of Price’s music, including a piano concerto, a piano sonata and orchestral suites, on YouTube.

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Classical music: A ticket to the concert here by the Imani Winds is an ideal gift to mark the African-American holiday Kwanzaa

December 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The African-American and Pan-African harvest and heritage holiday of Kwanzaa started Wednesday and runs through Jan. 1.

Many people know the name of the events that mark the African Diaspora.

But do you know more about the holiday itself?

Do you know the seven principles of Kwanzaa?

Do you know the history and person behind the celebration, which started the United States in 1966?

Here is a link to a comprehensive view of Kwanzaa in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

If you are looking for a suitable gift to give during Kwanzaa, it would be hard to beat tickets to the concert by the Imani Winds (below) on Friday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Imani Winds have been nominated for a Grammy Award, and have established a reputation for world music and commissioning new works.

For more information about the group, the performers, ticket prices and how to buy tickets, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/imani-winds/

The group’s name comes from a principle of Kwanzaa — namely, faith. And one member, Valerie Coleman, composed a signature piece based on the first principle of Kwanzaa – Umoji, or Unity. You can hear that work in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Then in June, from June 6 to June 9, Valerie Coleman (below) returns to Madison as the Composer-in-Residence for the second annual LunArt Festival — a cultural and all-women festival devoted to performers, composers, writers and artists.


Classical music: Prize-winning UW-Madison conductor Chad Hutchinson talks about the FREE and unusual all-American, all-20th century concert he will perform with the UW Symphony Orchestra this Friday night

October 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Chad Hutchinson (below) is starting his second season at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music by putting his own stamp on programming with an intriguing, all-American and all-20th-century concert that combines music for the concert hall with music for plays and films.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra is in Mills Hall this Friday night, Oct. 12, and starts at 8 p.m. with an informal pre-concert talk by Hutchinson (below) at 7:30 p.m.

Hutchison recently won one first prize and two second prizes from The American Prize for work he did – in opera conducting, orchestral conducting and orchestral programming — at the University of Minnesota and the University of South Dakota.

For more details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-3/

The Ear asked Hutchinson how, after his first year, he feels about the UW-Madison.

He answered: “What makes the UW-Madison special is the camaraderie and support of the students, faculty and staff across the numerous disciplines within the Mead Witter School of Music.

“I’m thrilled to be back working with the orchestra (below), opera and conducting students and collaborating with the amazing faculty here. Seeing the “light bulb” moments when students realize and achieve a new level of competency for themselves and the ensemble is the best part of the profession.”

Here are his thoughts about the program:

“The UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season with a program of three influential American composers. This concert will highlight the juxtaposition of traditional classical music and compositions heavily influenced by folk, jazz and the blues.

“A common thread throughout the concert is the idea of firsts and exploring new ideas as a composer.

“The Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1931) of Samuel Barber (below) was the first piece that he composed for full orchestra and is based on the Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan.

“This performance will be the debut of one of the Symphony Orchestra’s new doctoral conducting students Ji-Hyun Yim (below). Ji-Hyun (Jenny) comes to Madison after completing a Master’s Degree in Orchestral Conducting from the University of North Texas.

“The second piece on the program is one that I have wanted to program for quite some time. The “Afro-American” Symphony (1930) of William Grant Still (below, in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), his first symphony, is widely regarded as the first large-scale piece of symphonic repertoire composed by an African-American and performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Each movement’s title is influenced by short poems by the 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (below, in 1890).

“Since the Barber and Still were composed within one year of each other in 1930-1931, I wanted to show the dichotomy of the straight-ahead classical world and the other side of classical music in the late 1920s and 1930s that was being heavily influenced by the more popular music of the time.

“Lastly, we feature the first and only film music that Bernstein composed. “On the Waterfront” (1954), an Oscar-winning film directed by Elia Kazan that starred Marlon Brando (below) and Eva Marie Saint, shows Bernstein writing simultaneously for the symphonic hall and the big screen.

“This work will feature UW-Madison professor of saxophone and composition Les Thimmig (below) and will showcase many soloists within the orchestra. While not programmed as often as his music from West Side Story or On the Town, I believe that Bernstein’s unique use of color, rhythm and melody in this work – heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — speak for themselves.”


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Classical music: When it turns hot and humid this weekend, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: “Summerland” by William Grant Still

August 4, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Early August is bringing another blast of summer this weekend.

Here come the heat and humidity again.

The Ear loves certain music and composers who seem particularly listenable and enjoyable in summer.

One is the French master Francis Poulenc, whose works often have a certain light, airy and playful quality to them.

But recently, on Wisconsin Public Radio, The Ear heard another winner to hear in hot weather.

It is the piano piece “Summerland” by William Grant Still (below in a photo by Carl Van Vechten), which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom. It is a relaxing and dreamy work, beautiful and very summery with suggestions of the blues and Debussy.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was a very successful and major African-American composer of classical music as well as a conductor. He has been experiencing a long overdue revival lately.

Here is a link to his biography, which features a lot of awards and distinctions, in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Grant_Still

And you can find many more large works, including several symphonies, and miniatures on YouTube, which also has other several settings of “Summerland.”

Here is “Summerland” in a version for solo piano:

If you like this music, link or forward or share this post.

Enjoy!

Stay cool!


Classical music: The Festival Choir of Madison will perform Slavic music – including several U.S. and world premieres — under a guest Spanish conductor this Saturday night

May 15, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Festival Choir of Madison (below) will perform the program “The Slavic Soul” this coming Saturday night, May 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The Festival Choir will have guest conductor Nikoleta Popova for the event, who is coming from Spain to conduct a program comprised of songs either by Slavic composers or inspired by Slavic music. More about the conductor is below.

Several U.S. premieres are marked with an asterisk and there is one world premiere.

Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors 65 and over; and $10 for students. For information and tickets, go to: https://festivalchoirmadison.squarespace.com/concerts/2018/5/theslavicsoul

Here is the complete program:

THE SLAVIC SOUL

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) – Four Slovak Folk Songs (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1908-1975) – Two Russian Folk Songs. With Anya Gubenkova, alto

Alexander Davidenko (1899–1934) – “At Ten Versts From the Capital”* with Ted Reinke, piano, and Dan Broner, organ

Vera Nasha (Our Faith)* Serbian Folk Song, arr. Yónatan Sánchez Santianes with James McKenzie, percussion

Szymon Godziemba-Trytek (1988) Agnus Dei (World Premiere) with Ted Reinke, organ

Georgy Sviridov (1915–1998) – “A Wondrous Birth”; “Balalaika”; and “Reveille.” With Anya Gubenkova, alto

Dobri Hristov (1875–1941) – “Rachenitsa”

Todor Popov (1921–2000) – “Stara Sa Maika” (The Old Mother)*

“Kalinka,” a Russian Folk Song arranged by Vadim Prokhorov

The guest conductor is Nikoleta Popova (below) of Bulgaria and Spain. She is a renowned specialist in Eastern European and Bulgarian music and has offered seminars and master classes all over the world.

Currently, Popova is Professor in Conducting at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Canarias in Las Palmas, Spain, where she is also music director of the conservatory orchestra and choirs. She has appeared as guest conductor in Austria, Italy, Spain, Poland, and the U.S., as well as her native Bulgaria.

Born in Dobrich, Bulgaria, Nikoleta Popova received her education as a conductor from the National Academy of Music in Sofia, Bulgaria, and from Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Graz. Among her teachers are Eric Whitacre, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Alex Schillings, Klaas Stok, Marco Antonio Da Silva Ramos, and others.

In 2011 Nikoleta Popova received her Ph.D. from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with a dissertation on the performance of the black spiritual. Since 2012, she has published three books in Spanish with in-depth analysis of the problems that singers and conductors face in the interpretation of African-American spirituals.


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will celebrate the Americas with two world premieres this Friday night

April 10, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will give two performances — one in Madison and one in Milwaukee — of the program “I Hear America Singing.”

The Madison program features two world premieres: Alleluia by Wayne Oquin and Shenandoah by Jae Lee. The Madison performance will also include a special guest ensemble: The University of Wisconsin–Whitewater Chamber Singers.

The local performance on this Friday, April 13, is at 7:30 p.m. in Grace Episcopal Church (below), 116 West Washington Ave., on the Capitol Square.

On next Saturday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m., the WCC will perform at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 914 East Knapp Street, Milwaukee.

The concert is a musical celebration of all the Americas — North and South — and all Americans.

Also, in recognition of Robert Gehrenbeck’s 10th anniversary as artistic director, the WCC presents the world premiere of Alleluia by New York composer and Juilliard School faculty member Wayne Oquin.

Inspired by Randall Thompson’s classic setting of the same one-word text, Oquin’s new version updates Thompson’s musical style in his own harmonic language, which has been compared to Morten Lauridsen’s.

An extremely versatile musician, Oquin (below) boasts recent commissions and performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Danish National Symphony, the United States Air Force Band, the Houston Chamber Choir, and the King’s Singers.

At the Madison concert the WCC will be joined by the UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers performing their own world premiere, Shenandoah, by New York composer, organist and former jazz pianist Jae Lee (below).

The remainder of the program spans music of four centuries and multiple nationalities. Masterpieces of the U.S. choral repertoire — Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations and Charles Ives’s Psalm 67 — share billing with a diverse selection of works from throughout the hemisphere.

They include music by Mexican Baroque master Manuel de Samaya (below top); Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla; African-American composers Bobby McFerrin, Hall Johnson, W. C. Handy, and Rosephanye Powell; and Native-American composer and longtime friend of the WCC, Brent Michael Davids (below bottom).

(You can hear a work that Robert Gehrenbeck commissioned for the UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers from Wayne Oquin in the YouTube video at the bottom, performed by the Houston Chamber Choir.)

The WCC’s award-winning organist, Mark Brampton Smith (below), will perform Samuel Barber’s virtuosic Wondrous Love: Variations On a Shape-Note Hymn on two amazing pipe organs: the 1987, 38-rank Casavant at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, and the 2012, 51-rank Schantz at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee.

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Artistic director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs choral activities at the UW-Whitewater, has been hailed by critics for his vibrant and emotionally compelling interpretations of a wide variety of choral masterworks.

Advance tickets for the April 13 performance in Madison are available for $20 ($10 for students) from www.wisconsinchamberchoir.org, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

The April 21 performance in Milwaukee will be presented for a free-will offering.


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Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Read a rave review of John DeMain’s current production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York

July 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Some readers have asked The Ear:

How come John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera, wasn’t conducting at last Saturday’s Opera in the Park?

The reason is not that DeMain was taking time off and enjoying a summer vacation.

Rather, he was busy guest-conducting an acclaimed production of George Gershwin’s African-American opera “Porgy and Bess” (below top) at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival (below bottom) in upstate New York at Cooperstown.

DeMain has enjoyed a long association with both George Gershwin’s opera and the Glimmerglass Festival (below top and bottom).

And Madison music critic Greg Hettmansberger (below), who is writing a biography of DeMain, traveled there to hear and see the production.

He filed the following review on his website “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/porgy-casts-a-special-glow-over-glimmerglass/

Now you know.

And can share in the pride.


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players wrap up their third season this Friday night at 6 with music by Mozart, Schubert and Osvaldo Golijov

July 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below) wrap up their third summer series.

The 90-minute performance is at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight St., on Madison’s near east side.

A post-concert reception will be held with snacks from the Underground Food Collective and the Willy Street Coop.

Tickets are $15 at the door.

The program is typical for the relatively new group – a small ensemble making big waves — in that it features regular members with a guest performer, and also mixes old music and new music, sometimes with an unusual twist.

The program offers three works.

The dramatic “Quartettsatz” (1820), or “quartet movement,” by Franz Schubert (below) was intended be a part of another string quartet. It never found that home, and now exists as a popular work on its own. (You can hear it played by the Amadeus Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” (1994), by the eclectic contemporary Argentinean-American composer Osvaldo Golijov (below, in a photo by Kayana Szymczak for the New York Times), has proven to be among contemporary music’s more popular works. (It has been performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.)

As you can gather from the title, it has Hebraic or Yiddish elements typical of Golijov, who is Jewish and has lived in Israel, and it possesses an appealing klezmer sound. The featured soloist is guest clarinetist Michael Maccaferri (below)

Ending the concert is the popular and supremely beautiful “Sinfonia Concertante” for Violin and Viola in E-flat Major, K. 364, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was composed originally for a string orchestra and is usually performed that way.

But The Willys, always inventive, will use an anonymous “house music” reduction for string sextet that was done in 1808, almost 30 years after the composer’s death.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society has done many similar reductions of piano concertos by Mozart and symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn with great success.

So The Ear is very anxious to hear this transcription or arrangement, which could make yet another great masterpiece even more accessible with smaller forces at less expense.

To The Ear, it has all the makings of yet another MUST-HEAR concert by a MUST-HEAR group.

See you there.


Classical music: New Orleans seeks to once again become an American opera capital with an emphasis on diversity

May 31, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

When you think of opera in America, chances are good that you think of New York City with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Houston Grand Opera; the Santa Fe Opera; and countless other opera companies in many major cities.

And when you think of New Orleans, you understandably think of jazz.

But the truth is that for a long time, New Orleans was an American capital for opera, more important than many of the other cities mentioned above.

Consider the fact that the first opera performed in the United States was performed in New Orleans in 1796. And that at one point, New Orleans was home to five opera companies.

Plus, the opera that was performed there in the past brought racial, cultural and gender diversity to an art form that often lacked it and was largely Euro-centric. (You can hear the company sing “We’re Goin’ Around” from ragtime great Scott Joplin‘s opera “Treemonisha” in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Now some singers and others (below) have formed an organization – OperaCreole — with the aim of correcting racism and restoring New Orleans’ reputation for opera,  especially that of the many African-American and Creole opera composers who were native to New Orleans.

A fine story, with an illuminating interview, recently appeared on NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/28/530085480/a-new-orleans-company-shines-a-light-on-operas-diverse-history

Another excellent story, with more focus on repertoire and history, appeared in The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-small-step-toward-correcting-the-overwhelming-whiteness-of-opera

And here is a link to OperaCreole’s own website with more information about the company and its productions:

http://www.operacreole.com


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