The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who pioneered an originality and difference that changed our appreciation of early music, has died at 86

March 12, 2016
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ALERT: The UW Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director UW-Madison Professor James Smith, will perform a FREE concert on this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The program features “Mathis der Mahler” by Paul Hindemith and the Symphony No. 1 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

By Jacob Stockinger

The pioneering conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (below) died this past week.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt portrait

He was 86. He had been ill, and died only three months after his last public appearance on the concert stage.

He leaves behind a huge recorded legacy, some 560 entries — including many multiple-disc boxes — according to a search at Amazon.com.

Harnoncourt started as a concert-level cellist who was especially well-known for who conducting early music. But he also worked with more modern orchestra groups and soloists in a lot of big mainstream music. (Below, in photo from Getty Images, he is seen conducting in 2012.)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt rehearsing in 2012 Getty Images

True, it for his Johann Sebastian Bach, his Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Ludwig van Beethoven — done with the group he and his wife Alice founded, the Concentus Musicus Wien — that The Ear will most remember him for. They were strong and forceful. No music box Mozart for Harnoncourt!

But Harnoncourt refused to be pigeonholed into smaller Baroque ensembles.

The Ear also likes him with much larger modern groups in mainstream Romantic fare such as the symphonies and concertos by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner and Antonin Dvorak with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He even conducted Johann Strauss waltzes for the New Year’s Concerto from Vienna.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting

Harnoncourt often found beauty in unexpected places, in music that we thought had nothing new to say after so many performances and such a long history. But he loved vibrancy and modernity. He did what Ezra Pound advised poets to do: Make it new.

And boy, did Harnoncourt — a thoughtful and passionate advocate — ever make music new, whether it was Baroque, Classical or Romantic! Although he was not a pioneer of new music per se, he always seemed to turn early music or whatever else he touched into new music.

The Ear recalls with relish some of the ways he put percussion and brass forward in early music, giving incredible rhythm and impulse or momentum to it. The same goes for using boy sopranos instead of women in the cantatas, oratorios and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Harnoncourt always seemed less interested in authenticity as a justification than in the results he got from such changes or such different interpretations.

Often Harnoncourt had certain differences he wanted to emphasize. They were not always convincing, but they were usually convincing. And they were always interesting and illuminating, even if you disagreed with them.

nikolaus harnoncourt popeye conducting

In the special memorial  YouTube video at the bottom is the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 156 in a performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna:

Here are some illuminating obituaries:

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/arts/music/nikolaus-harnoncourt-conductor-and-early-music-specialist-dies-at-86.html?_r=0

From the Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Anastasia Tsioulcas:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/03/07/469505636/remembering-nikolaus-harnoncourt

From The Guardian in the United Kingdom:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/06/nikolaus-harnoncourt-obituary

From The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/nikolaus-harnoncourt-conductor-of-international-renown-dies-at-86/2016/03/06/278280e4-e3df-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html

And finally, here is a story from MTV, which called Harnoncourt the “punk genius of classical music,” a description The Ear likes and which he suspects Harnoncourt himself would have liked:

http://www.mtv.com/news/2750555/nikolaus-harnoncourt-was-classical-musics-punk-genius/

Do you have an observation about Nikolaus Harnoncourt to share?

Is there a specific composer, work or recording of his that you hold special?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Famed music critic Andrew Porter has died at 86.

April 10, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Music critic Andrew Porter, best known in this country for his 20-year tenure at The New Yorker magazine, died in London this week at the age of 86. (Below, he is seen working on “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a Toronto production in 2005.)

andrew porter magic flute toronto 2005

In his music reviews for The New Yorker magazine, critic Andrew Porter always seemed a cut above most journalistic critics.

His reviews had enough depth and substance beyond the occasion of the specific performance he was reviewing that they were collected and published in several books — unfortunately many are now out of print — that still provide terrific research possibilities and vindicate his earlier judgments.

Here is a link to a page at amazon.com that lists his essays and libretto translation:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=andrew+porter+music&sprefix=andrew+porter%2Cstripbooks%2C237

Andrew Porter book

So many of us learned to appreciate classical music in more knowledgeable and sophisticated ways, thanks to Andrew Porter and his wealth of detailed knowledge as well as his superior writing style. (Below, you can see Andrew Porter in the 1970s.)

andrew porter 1970s

But I had no idea of his really erudite sides — including his command of several languages and his extensive involvement in the actual performances of music, especially translating opera librettos — until I read his obituaries.

Here is a sampling of the memorial essays about a critic who will go down as one of the greatest critics ever.

Here is a story from the terrific Deceptive Cadence blog of NPR )National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/04/03/397295421/multifaceted-music-critic-andrew-porter-dies-at-86

Here is a story from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/arts/music/andrew-porter-new-yorker-classical-music-critic-dies-at-86.html

And here is a story, with great background and details, from The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom where Porter — seen below in 1992 in a photo by Jane Bown — lived in London since retiring from the New Yorker:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/apr/07/andrew-porter

Andrew Porter in 1992.

 


Classical music: Streaming gains even more momentum. Korean carmaker Hyundai will abandon in-dash CD players and titan CD seller Naxos will launch a high-definition streaming service.

January 24, 2015
3 Comments

No doubt about it.

Streaming seems the sound wave of the future.

That’s what the news about sales and trends points to, anyway.

Streaming through such services at Spotify or various app stores and retailers like Amazon.com looks to be the inevitable next step from CDs, just as CDs followed tapes and tapes followed LPs and vinyl (78, 45 and 33-1/3 RPM)-– even though vinyl is making something of a comeback among audiophiles because of its superior, less harsh sound quality.

But consider some new developments coming out of Asia, which seems to be setting the trend for the dissemination of Western classical music more than Western culture or Western industry is doing in Europe and the United States.

Korean carmaker Hyundai will get rid of CD payers in its next year’s models. Instead the music connections will run through Bluetooth electronics that link up solely to MP3 players and iPods. (Below is a photo of the new dashboard taken at a recent industry show.)

Hyundai new car audio system

Here is a link to a story that has more technical details plus a defense of KEEPING in-dash CD players – below is Japanese carmaker Honda’s more traditional in-dash CD player and changer — and the virtue of listening to one entire CD:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-who-still-listens-to-cds-in-the-car-20150114-story.html

Honda in-dash CD player and changer

Then consider the fact that Naxos – the Hong Kong-based budget CD label that now dominates the CD industry – is about to launch a high-definition streaming service.

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/2015/01/naxos-launches-hd-streaming-service/

Naxos Records logo

Penderecki Wit Naxos

Here is some background about the company, based in Singapore, that will service Naxos’ streaming site:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/2422084

The Ear has very mixed feelings about this news. He listens to all sorts of formats in the car — radio, CDs and iPods.

What about you?

Would you buy a new car without an in-dash CD player, a car that relies only on wireless and streaming technology?

And how dissatisfied are you with the sound quality of CDs versus streaming or other formats?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Let Us Now Praise – and rediscover — pianist and teacher extraordinaire Seymour Bernstein. The Ear wants his books about amateur music-making reprinted affordably and made into e-books. Plus, this morning at 11 a.m. you can hear and see, live and for FREE, UW-Madison alumna Brenda Rae Klinkert sing in a Richard Strauss opera in Munich.

October 5, 2014
4 Comments

ALERT: Some local-related news came in too late to include yesterday.

This morning, UW-Madison School of Music alumna and Appleton native Brenda Rae Klinkert (BA, 2004 and seen below in costume) is singing with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in Richard Strauss’ opera “Die Schweigsame Frau” (The Silent Woman, 1935) and the performance is being broadcast LIVE on the Internet. You can watch the free audio-visual transmission at 11 a.m. via http://www.staatsoper.de/en/staatsopertv.html (Staatsoper.TV).

Please pass the word to any students and professors, friends and fans who might be interested in this opera and this performer. Adds local opera fan Dan Shea: “Brenda Rae currently is continuing a series of major breakthroughs in her operatic career, an amazing arc of success in Europe and the U.S. with  major roles in major operas. Just take a look at her schedule at brendarae.com

“Personally, I’ve seen a lot of “Traviatas” all over the world, but hers at Santa Fe in the summer of 2013 was especially wonderful, and in a class by itself — as the reviews attested.”

Brenda Rae Klinkert in costume

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday I wrote about violinist Joshua Bell — a superstar who is both a renowned performer and a devoted teacher, all at the same time.

Today I want to write about someone who established a big performing career when he was young – but then walked away from it all at the same age Joshua Bell is right now, about 50, in order to devote himself to teaching, writing books and composing.

Chances are you haven’t heard about pianist Seymour Bernstein (below), or heard only a little bit if anything. 

Seymour bernstein 1

But it turns out that might all change, thanks to the movie star Ethan Hawke (below left with Bernstein on the right), who met Bernstein at a dinner party and ended up directing a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, who is now 87 years old and still active.

It happened especially after Bernstein help the screen-veteran Hawke to overcome his stage fright, which itself is a fascinating story.

It was also fascinating to read that Bernstein doesn’t think the concert world is the way for classical music to go today. He wants instead to recapture the joy of amateur music-making.

I read a great story about the movie and how it came about in The New York Times. Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/27/arts/ethan-hawke-films-seymour-an-introduction.html?_r=0

Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein

I got so intrigued that I tried to order some of his books by going to Amazon.com.

It turns out they are all out of print and some go for hundreds of dollars as rarities.

PLEASE NOTE A MISTAKE AND A CORRECTION: The Ear just got a post-posting correction to this error, for which he apologizes. If you go to a Reader Comment by Pru Palachek, you will find out that Seymour Bernstein’s books are indeed available — for a higher price — from a small music publisher, Manduca, in Portland, Maine. You can also visit Bernstein’s own website for more information. Just Google “Seymour Bernstein.”

Well, there is always the library. But being an avid amateur pianist, I would like my own copies to mark up and keep near the keyboard.

So I am hoping somebody can persuade Amazon to reissue them as both regular books and especially e-books. Maybe the success of the movie will help. Maybe Hawke’s fame will help.

And what I read isn’t hype.

It turns out The Ear knows someone who herself took some piano lessons from Seymour Bernstein and played for him. This pianist says Bernstein is all he is cracked up to be -– a cordial and kind man, an excellent teacher and an outstanding performer.

Seymour Bernstein playing piano

I did find some YouTube videos based on his books “With Your Own Two Hands.” At the bottom is the second of several that are all good and all whet your appetite for more:

In the meantime let us hope for two things:

1. That the movie, which might win some awards and garner a big audience, gets wide circulation.

2. That Amazon, or some other publisher, agrees to reprint the books in regular and e-book formats.

What do you know about Seymour Bernstein?

Did you ever heard him live or in recording?

Did you ever read his books or use his methods?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


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
3 Comments

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:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/classical-music-qa-organizer-dean-schroeder-talks-about-the-inaugural-handel-aria-competition-at-this-years-madison-early-music-festival-on-monday-night-july-8/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/classical-music-the-ear-finds-himself-in-handel-himmel-and-enjoys-the-first-handel-aria-competition-at-the-14th-annual-madison-early-music-festival/

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.

tokyo-qt

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 amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dclassical&field-keywords=Hilliard+Ensemble

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:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/12/19/255572105/leaders-in-early-music-face-a-final-curtain-with-grace


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