The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: Tonight brings an all-Bach organ recital at Overture Hall. At the UW-Madison, this week brings music for band, brass and strings

October 23, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

TONIGHT, Tuesday, Oct. 23

At 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, Paul Jacobs (below) will perform an all-Bach program. Jacobs, who is the only organist to have won a Grammy Award, is the chair of the organ department at the Juilliard school in New York City and was the teacher and mentor of Greg Zelek, who is the new organist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Heralded as “one of the major musicians of our time” by Alex Ross of The New Yorker and as “America’s leading organ performer” by The Economist, the internationally celebrated Jacobs combines a probing intellect and extraordinary technical mastery with an unusually large repertoire, both old and new. He has performed to great critical acclaim on five continents and in each of the 50 United States.

Jacobs made musical history at age 23 when he played Bach’s complete organ works in an 18-hour marathon performance on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. (You can hear Jacobs play Bach in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Jacobs has premiered works by Samuel Adler, Mason Bates, Michael Daugherty, Wayne Oquin, Stephen Paulus, Christopher Theofanidis and Christopher Rouse, among others.

During the 2018-19 season, Jacobs will perform the world premiere of John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach?” for organ and orchestra with the Minnesota Orchestra under conductor Osmo Vanska; with the Cleveland Orchestra he will give the American premiere of Austrian composer Bernd Richard Deutsch’s “Okeanos” for organ and orchestra.

For more details about Jacobs, his complete all-Bach program and tickets ($20), go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/paul-jacobs/

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Concert Band will perform a FREE concert of music by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts from “Candide”), Vincent Persichetti, Percy Grainger, Mark Markowski and Steven Bryant.

For more information about the performance and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-fall-concert-2/

THURSDAY, Oct. 25

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet and special guest UW percussionist Anthony DiSanza (below, in a photo by Katherine Esposito) will perform a ticketed concert of genre-bending music by Michael Tilson Thomas, Pat Metheny, Modest Mussorgsky, Alan Ferber, James Parker and David Sanford.

Admission is $17 for adults, $7 for students and children.

For more information about the performers, the program and how to purchase tickets, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wisconsin-brass-quintet-with-anthony-disanza-professor-of-percussion-2/

Members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, from left, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) are: Daniel Grabois, horn; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Curry, tuba; and Alex Noppe, trumpet.

SATURDAY, Oct. 27

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte Quartet will perform a FREE concert.

The program features: the String Quartet in C Major, D. 46 (1813), by the young Franz Schubert; Three Rags for String Quartet (“Poltergeist” from 1971, “Graceful Ghost” from 1970, and “Incinteratorag” from 1967) by William Bolcom; and the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 (1837), by Felix Mendelssohn.

For more information about the Pro Arte Quartet and its long, historic and fascinating background, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/pro-arte-quartet-3/

Members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Rick Langer, are: David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.)


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Classical music: New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross names his favorite performances, recordings and book of 2017

January 5, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many musicologists, musicians and music fans consider Alex Ross (below), of The New Yorker magazine, to be the best music critic in the U.S.

Besides the major awards his two books – “The Rest Is Noise” and “Listen to This” — have won, Ross has a reputation for emphasizing the new, the unknown and the neglected, and for deeply perceptive judgments and original observations.

Now, a lot of other critics, from The New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR) and Gramophone magazine as well as the Grammy nominations have named their Best of 2017.

Here is a link to a posting that contains other links to those different lists:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/27/classical-music-here-are-some-recommendations-for-post-christmas-shopping/

Yet it seems particularly important and enlightening to consider what Alex Ross has selected for his recommendations for one book, 10 performances and 20 recordings.

Here is a link to Ross’ list, which has many links to samples and reviews:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/notable-performances-and-recordings-of-2017


Classical music: Playing musical chairs in The Big Apple: The New Yorker magazine gives you the dirt on who might succeed James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic.

October 4, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

They are two of the most high-profile jobs in the world of classical music and they are both in New York City: the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

And right now candidates are being examined as possible successors to their current heads, James Levine and Alan Gilbert respectively.

According to a story in The New Yorker magazine, one major player reportedly is the acclaimed firebrand and openly gay French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Hiroyuki Ito for Getty Images), who currently heads the Philadelphia Orchestra. Guess which post he is a candidate for?

yannick20141031-04.jpg

Another major candidate seems to be the conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (below). Can you guess for which post?

esa-pekka-salonen-goes-multimedia-philharmonia-Esa_Pekka_Salonen_Philharmonia

The Ear asks: Whatever happened to American candidates?

Are we going backwards from the Leonard Bernstein achievement of putting American maestros on a par with European or other foreign conductors?

To be fair, though, some report that Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop, currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, could be a contender for the New York Philharmonic post.

Anyway, the recent New Yorker magazine had a very good take on the game of musical chairs being played around the two major vacancies.

The story shows careful research and excellent deep sourcing. But it also reads a bit like an engagingly conversational gossip column.

Maybe that is because it is written not by music critic Alex Ross but by Russell Platt, who is the classical music editor for the Goings On About Town column that starts the magazine.

Here is a link to an excellent read and what seems to be a pretty good crystal ball about the future leaders of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

It’s great reading for a Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/musical-chairs-conductors


Classical music: Music critic Alex Ross praises Tom Cruise’s use of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in the new “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” movie.

August 15, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger.

Looks like it’s going to be a hot and humid weekend.

Just the kind of weather to go see a movie in an air-conditioned cinema.

If you are an opera fan, you might want to consider seeing Tom Cruise and the latest offering in the “Mission Impossible” franchise -– “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” (below) — which features a central opera scene (below).

Puccini opera and Mission Impossible

That is the opinion of the prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below), who writes for The New Yorker magazine. And many consider Ross the best music critic in the U.S.

Alex Ross 2

In his essay or review in the Aug. 11 issue, Ross traces the use of opera in various movies — including in the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” and in the thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock. Ross argues that Tom Cruise really stands out in the way he does justice to Puccini’s “Turandot,” including the great and popular tenor aria “Nessun dorma.” (Heard at bottom in a YouTube video, with 33 million hits, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti, who made the aria his signature.)

Here is a link to the review by Alex Ross that is well worth reading:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/finally-a-non-embarrassing-classical-music-scene-in-a-blockbuster-movie

Enjoy!

And leave a comment telling The Ear if you agree with Alex Ross.


Classical music: The critics are unanimous — iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and others streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. CDs and vinyl are far better.

July 31, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critics’ judgments are in and they seem unanimous: iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and other similar streaming services do a grave injustice to classical music. In the end, CDs and vinyl LPs are far better than streaming for a quality listening experience.

itunes logo complete

spotify logo

 

pandora logo

The difficulties apparently have to do with engineering and the limits of technology, specifically of the digital compression of sound.

Here are three good and convincing critiques to read:

From The Atlantic magazine:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/07/the-tragedy-of-itunes-and-classical-music/399788/

From the acclaimed prize-winning music critic Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-anxious-ease-of-apple-music

Alex Ross 2

Here is an analysis from the prolific and always interesting reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas (below), who writes for National Public Radio (NPR) and its outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence. She tackles other streaming services including Pandora and Spotify. She focuses on the organization and the difficulty of finding the music you want to listen to:

http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/06/04/411963624/why-cant-streaming-services-get-classical-music-right

anastasia tsioulcas


Classical music: Gramophone magazine names its Best of 2014 Classical Recordings. Here it is, along with several other major compilations.

December 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

This post wraps up the holiday gift-giving season for this year.

Over the past month or so, I have offered several major roundups of the Best of 2014 classical music recordings.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/classical-music-here-are-the-best-classical-recordings-of-2014-from-the-new-york-times-and-the-boston-globe-as-well-as-npr/

NY Times top 20 classical CDs 2013 Tony Cenicola for NYT

The posts have included a Top 10 list from NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/12/11/370067981/best-classical-albums-of-2014

A list from the critics at The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/19/arts/music/classical-critics-pick-the-top-music-recordings-of-2014.html?_r=1

A list — really, two lists — from the prize-winning critic Alex Ross (below), who writes for The New Yorker Magazine:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/ten-notable-performances-recordings-2014

Alex Ross 2

A link from critic Jeremy Eichler at the Boston Globe:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2014/12/13/the-best-albums/6q7Tin4lPvj5RmqfCCSTFP/story.html

And a list of the classical nominations for the 57th annual Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/classical-music-the-57th-annual-grammy-award-nominations-provide-a-useful-guide-to-holiday-gift-giving/

grammy award BIG

Now, as the year ends, here comes the annual compilation by the venerable Gramophone magazine out of Great Britain. Top honors go to Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for their cycle of orchestral works, symphonies and overtures and more, by Johannes Brahms on the Decca label.

Brahms Chailly cover

But there is a lot more to look at and listen to, and, predictably, a lot of choices with ties to United Kingdom.

Anyway, if you still need to give a gift or maybe to redeem a gift card or spend cash you received, here is the story along with the direct link to the FREE digital magazine issue (below):

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/recordings-of-the-year-2014-free-digital-magazine-out-now

http://www.exacteditions.com/read/gramophone/recordings-of-the-year-2014-41178

Gramophone recordings of 2014 cover


Classical music: Here are the best classical recordings of 2014 from The New York Times, The New Yorker magazine and The Boston Globe as well as NPR.

December 20, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This is the last weekend for holiday shipping before Christmas, and retailers expect today to be even bigger and busier than Black Friday.

But whether you go to a local brick-and-mortar store such as Barnes & Noble or use the Internet, there is still time to order and receive such items as gifts.

Plus, whether you are looking for a gift for someone else or for what to buy with that gift card or cash you receive, perhaps you will find the following lists convenient and helpful.

The three lists are compilations of the Best Classical Music Recordings of 2014, even if they appear a bit late. (I seem to recall that these lists appeared closer to Thanksgiving or Black Friday in past years, but I could be wrong.)

NY Times top 20 classical CDs 2013 Tony Cenicola for NYT

The first list, a long one, comes from the various critics at The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/19/arts/music/classical-critics-pick-the-top-music-recordings-of-2014.html?_r=0

It covers solo instruments, vocal music, operas, orchestral music, chamber music – you name it.

The second list from a critic for The Boston Globe:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2014/12/13/the-best-albums/6q7Tin4lPvj5RmqfCCSTFP/story.html

The third list comes from ace music critic and prize-winner Alex Ross (below) of The New Yorker Magazine. He names 20 different recordings along with 10 memorable live events from the concert scene in New York City.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/ten-notable-performances-recordings-2014

Alex Ross 2

The Ear finds it interesting how many agreements there are about certain composers, works and performers – such as the haunting, 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Become Ocean” by the contemporary American composer John Luther Adams (below top and at the bottom in a YouTube video) and the Schubert recording by British pianist Paul Lewis (below middle) in late music by Franz Schubert or Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic in two symphonies by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

John Luther Adams

Paul Lewis

Here is a link to a previous Top 10 Best of 2014 list from NPR (National Public Radio), complete with CD covers and sound samples, that I posted:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/classical-music-need-gift-suggestions-npr-names-its-top-10-classical-music-albums-of-2014/

Happy shopping!

And even happier listening!!

It will be interesting to see what 2015 brings.


Classical music: The 57th annual Grammy Award nominations are out — and they provide a useful guide to holiday gift-giving.

December 9, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This year, the holiday gift-giving season went into high gear on Thanksgiving Day, not just Black Friday. That was followed by Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and on and on.

Doesn’t such commercialism of the holidays just make you want to break into “Joy to the World” or the “Hallelujah” Chorus?

Traditionally, The Ear has offered many lists and compilations for suggested classical recordings for the holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever.

Over this past weekend, the nominations for the 57th annual Grammy Awards were announced.

grammy award BIG

Of course, this event – no matter how hyped and prestigious for helping music  — is an industry honoring and promoting itself. So of course classical music is way down on the list, far behind more money-making and better selling genres.

But over the years The Ear has found that the nominees are actually more useful than the much shorter list of winners, which doesn’t come out anyway until well after the holidays.

So here is a link to the complete list of Grammy nominations. Just go the website, and scroll down to Category 72 though Category 81.

http://www.grammy.com/nominees

Sure, the Big Labels and Gray Ladies – such as Deutsche Grammophon and EMI – are represented.

And so are some pretty big New Names, including the astonishingly gifted prize-winning young pianist Daniil Trifonov (below), who, The Ear thinks, show get a Grammy for his Carnegie Hall recital. (Just listen to the YouTube video, taken from that live recital, at the bottom. It features a difficult Chopin prelude and notice the virtuosic ferocity combined with lyricism, the voicing, and the flexibility of tempo or rubato.)

danill trifonov

But once again The Ear notices how many recordings are being done by labels that have been established by the performing groups themselves or by smaller labels. Decentralization continues. So does the rediscovery of Baroque opera and early music as well as new music.

In addition, there continues to be an emphasis, established in recent years, on newer music and lesser known composers. So specialization also continues.

Notice too that veteran independent record producer Judith Sherman (below, holding the Grammy she won in 2012) is once again up for Producer of The Year – she has won it several times already.

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

Sherman is the same person who recorded the impressive first double CD of four centennial commissions for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet. That release included string quartets by John Harbison and Walter Mays as well as Piano Quintets by Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.

pro arte cd commission cover

This spring Judith Sherman is coming back to the UW-Madison School to record the last two commissions: the terrific Clarinet Quintet based on Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poem “Howl’ by American composer Pierre Jalbert (below top) and for the String Quartet No. 3 by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier (below bottom, in a photo by Lise Mernier).

Pierre Jalbert

Benoit Mernier by Lise Mernier

More such suggestions for classical music gifts are to come.

Usually critics from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal weigh in, as does Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine and the Deceptive Cadence blog for NPR (National Public Radio), and The Ear will include those.

And often The Ear throws in his own idea for gifts, which often involves linking a local live concert with a CD or a book and a CD. Stay tuned.

In addition, other website devoted to classical music – say the BBC and radio stations WQXR in New York City and WMFT in Chicago –- often featured a Best of the Year compilation.

And here is a link to more about the Grammys, including background

http://www.grammy.com

The Grammys will be awarded on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 and broadcast on CBS-TV from 8 to 11 p.m. LIVE from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.


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