The Well-Tempered Ear

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra cancels its first Masterworks concert and launches an online virtual Winter Chamber Series in January

November 22, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

With the surge in the coronavirus pandemic, the dominos are starting to fall again — this time for the spring series of live, in-person concerts that had been planned.

Friday night brought important news from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below, in photo by Mike Gorski).

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) has canceled its first Masterworks concert, with guest cellist Amit Peled, in late January. In its place the WCO is launching its first-ever digital Winter Chamber Series.

The virtual, online series of digital concerts will feature the ensemble’s 34 players in smaller groups of four to eight, That will be safer for both players and audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four home-viewable virtual online concerts are planned: Jan. 22, Feb. 26, March 26, and April 16. Programs are not available except for the first concert.

Also included are a pre-concert talk with WCO music director and maestro Andrew Sewell (below top, in a photo by Alex Cruz) and Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below bottom), and post-concert reflections with musicians of the WCO.

The ticket price for each concert, which will run 60-75 minutes, is $30 per household. A ticket entitles you to one viewing of the concert between Friday, Jan. 22, and Monday, Jan. 25. The concert will start streaming at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Patrons who have already purchased season subscription tickets can apply that to the full series of four concerts.

Tickets are available online at the Overture Center box office. See below.

The program for the first Winter Chamber Concert on Jan. 22 is:

Four Canzonas by the Baroque Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli (below):

“Tzigane” (a term for music by Hungarian gypsies or Romani) for Wind Quintet by the contemporary American composer Valerie Coleman (below):

The first movement of the famed String Quintet in C major, D. 956, by the Austrian Romantic composer Franz Schubert (below):

Four Octets by the 20th-century American composer and jazz musician Alec Wilder (below), which you can sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.

To see more background about the composers, more details about the concert and purchase tickets, go to: https://www.overture.org/events/wco-chamber-series

You can also check out the series as it progressively gets announced on the WCO home website: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/winter-chamber-series

The concert series sounds like a terrific substitution for the regular concerts that cannot yet take place.

But The Ear wonders if the price per concert is a bit steep, given that comparable concerts by UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music , the Wllly Street Chamber Players and Just Bach are free – although they do ask for donations — and that the Madison Opera charged $50 for its entire fall digital series while the Wisconsin Union Theater charges between $10 and $20 per virtual concert.

The Ear likes the eclectic programming, but also thinks it is kind of teasing and unsatisfying to offer just the first movement of such an organic masterpiece and profoundly beautiful work as the Schubert Cello Quintet. Doing one movement of a chamber music work somehow seems very different from doing one movement of a symphony.

It would also be nice to see the programs for all the concerts plus a series discount as an incentive.

What do you think about the WCO’s Winter Chamber Series?

What do you think about the price and the programming?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Will using first names with Beethoven and Mozart help fight racism and sexism in the concert hall?

October 28, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Why do concert programs read simply Beethoven for Beethoven (below top), but Florence Price for Florence Price (below bottom)?

According to a recent controversial essay by Chris White (below), a professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, it reflects and reinforces sexism and racism.

White is calling for universal “fullnaming” to put women composers and composers of color on an equal footing with the traditional canon of dead white male composers. All people may be equal, but all composers and their music are not.

You can certainly make a case for his interesting argument against using “mononyns,” as he calls them. But it still seems less than convincing to many, including The Ear. It many ways it seems downright silly and arbitrary. Isn’t it obvious that not all composers are equal in quality of their work?

It is the latest dustup in the classical music world, coming right on the heels of, and logically linked to, the idea that Beethoven is responsible for sexism and racism in the concert hall and the so-called “cancel culture” that is allied with the social and political protest movements of the past year, including Black Lives Matter.

That was treated here in a previous post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/did-beethoven-and-his-music-especially-the-iconic-fifth-symphony-foster-racism-exclusion-and-elitism-in-the-concert-hall-the-ear-thinks-that-is-pc-nonsense-what-do-you-think/

Here is a link to the complete article by White about the inclusion and absence of first names as it appeared on Slate: https://slate.com/culture/2020/10/fullname-famous-composers-racism-sexism.html

Funny, The Ear thinks of using only last names as little more than a function of: quality, importance and time; of fame and familiarity; and sometimes of promoting clarity and preventing confusion — not of race or gender.

It is why we say Bach (below) when we mean Johann Sebastian, and why we say Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emmanuel or Johann Christian when we mean one of his sons.

It is why we say Richard Strauss to distinguish him from Johann Strauss.

But it also why Haydn means Franz Joseph (below), not his less important brother Michael Haydn.

And why the American composer Henry Cowell is listed with his full name and not just Cowell.

Perhaps one day – if we hear enough of the music by the recently rediscovered Black female composer Florence Price often enough and like it enough – she will be known simply as Price. After all, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu is not usually listed as simply Takemitsu. 

Actually, the Ear prefers using full names for all composers — famous or not, male or female, white or black — especially when it is for the general public. But it seems more a matter of politeness, respect and education than of sociopolitical change and social justice.

That is not to say that those of us in classical music don’t see a need to correct the racism and sexism of the past, to foster diversity and inclusiveness. White has a point. Still, the whole idea of using both names in all cases seems more than a bit naïve, superficial and simplistic as a solution to racism and sexism.

It sounds a lot like the kind of theoretical speculation and contrarian thinking you might expect from an assistant professor trying to get noticed and make his mark on big contemporary issues so that he can get tenure and become an associate professor. A high public profile certainly helps that.

But whatever you think of White’s motives or purpose, his essay is causing a “meltdown” on Twitter: https://mybroadband.co.za/forum/threads/‘fullnaming’-mozart-and-beethoven-to-fight-sexism-and-racism-twitter-squabbles-over-slate-article.1108776/

Should you want to know more about Professor White or to leave a message of either support or disagreement, here is a link to his home website: http://www.chriswmwhite.com

What do you think about the idea of using first names for all composers as a way to combat racism and sexism in classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site www.youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic or the official specific link: https://youtu.be/77FXFZucrWc.

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu or visit music.wisc.edu.

 


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Madison Opera cancels its January production of “She Loves Me.” Will other groups follow suit? Plus, tonight is the last online concert by the LunART Festival of music by Black women

October 17, 2020
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ALERT: TONIGHT, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. the third LunART Festival will wrap up with the second of its two FREE streamed “Human Family” concerts featuring the works of Black women (below). Due to popular demand, last week’s concert is still posted and available for viewing. This week’s concert will be followed by a virtual party. Here are links for information, programs and biographies: https://www.lunartfestival.org/2020virtualfestival and https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=LunART

By Jacob Stockinger

The coronavirus pandemic continues to slowly take its toll on local live productions during the current season.

The Madison Opera has now canceled its second production of the season, the Broadway musical “She Loves Me” by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which was scheduled for late January in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here are details from Madison Opera: “We will replace She Loves Me with a Digital Winter season that lasts from January to March. Details will be announced in December. (She Loves Me will be part of our 2021/22 season, so it’s only a delay!)”

For more about Madison Opera’s digital fall season – which costs $50 per household to subscribe to – go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/Fall2020

The next digital event is at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday, Oct. 24, by Sun Prairie bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee), who has performed around the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera.

He will perform a live-streamed concert from the Madison Opera Center that will be a tribute to the American bass Giorgio Tozzi (below), who was Ketelsen’s teacher at Indiana University. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Tozzi sing “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific” by Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Here is Tozzi’s biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giorgio_Tozzi

Soprano Emily Secor (below top) and pianist Scott Gendel (below bottom) will perform with Ketelsen.

Here is a link to details of Kyle Ketelsen’s recital: https://www.madisonopera.org/class/liveketelsen/?wcs_timestamp=1603567800

___________________________________________________________________________

The cancellation makes The Ear wonder: Are local groups and presenters being too timid or too hopeful when it comes to future plans for the current season?

After all, this past week we learned that both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic have canceled the rest of the current season due to public health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. And all indications are that it will be a very rough, unsafe winter and spring in Wisconsin and Madison.

That’s why The Ear suspects that, unfortunately, the rest of the season will either be canceled or be virtual and moved online. It even seems more than plausible that there will be no live performances until the winter or spring of 2022.

So you can probably expect further word pretty soon of more cancellations, postponements and virtual online performances from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, the University Opera and others.

What do you think? 

Will there be operas, orchestral performances and live chamber music sometime yet this season?

When do you think it will be safe to perform and attend live concerts?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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New York Times music critics pick 10 MUST-HEAR online virtual classical concerts to stream for October

October 3, 2020
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ALERT: Tonight’s concert by the choral group Roomful of Teeth for the Wisconsin Union Theater at the UW-Madison’s Hamel Music Center has been canceled and postponed indefinitely.

By Jacob Stockinger

Increasingly the coronavirus pandemic seems surging out of control. So it comes as no surprise that also more and more concerts of classical music are taking place virtually and online.

Coronavirus image CDC

There are many ways to choose among local, regional, national and international concerts.

But one good guide was published this last week and featured the choice of must-hear classical concerts by critics for The New York Times.

It is an interesting and varied selection, and includes times, links and brief descriptions.

It features concerts that emphasize Black composers such as Florence Price (below top) and women composers. It covers many genres from a solo piano recital by Jeremy Denk (below bottom) – who is supposed to perform here on Dec. 11 at the Wisconsin Union Theater – to chamber music, vocal music, orchestral concerts and operas.

Florence Price head shot University of Arkansas Libraries

Jeremy Denk playing CR Hiroyuki Ito NYTImes

Curiously, there is quite bit of new music but little early music, either Renaissance or Baroque. Perhaps more will appear around the holiday times, when that music is part of the traditional holiday celebrations.

You will find contemporary composers but also lots of certified, tried-and-true classics and masterworks.

Some are one-day only events but many run from a week through a month.

Here is a link to the story. PLEASE NOTE THAT TIMES ARE ALL EASTERN: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/arts/music/classical-music-stream.html

Please let The Ear know if you like this kind of listing and find it useful.

And please feel free to leave in the comment section other guides or events that the public should know about.


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Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

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

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

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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UW-Madison will forego in-person concerts through the fall and go virtual. The FREE online concerts start TONIGHT, Monday, Sept. 14, at 6-8:30 p.m. with a graduate student recital

September 14, 2020
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PLEASE NOTE: The following post has been updated with more information since it first appeared.

By Jacob Stockinger

In ordinary times, the yearlong schedule would be set and concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music would be already well underway.

But these are not ordinary times – as you can tell from the silence about the UW season that usually presents some 300 events.

It has taken time, but the music school has finally worked out the basic approach to concerts during the pandemic. It will allow worldwide listening.

Audiences will NOT be present for any Mead Witter School of Music concerts or recitals this fall. Instead, a live stream of faculty recitals and all required student recitals, many of them in the new Hamel Music Center (below), will be available.

The portal to the live streaming, along with a scheduling clock and time countdown, can be found at: youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic

The concert season starts tonight at 6:30 to 8 p.m. The performer is graduate student flutist Heidi Keener (below), who is giving her recital for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree. The recital was postponed from March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the school of music’s concert website you will find a biography and the program — just hover the computer’s cursor over the event: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/recital-heidi-keener-dma/.

The same information will also be on the YouTube website for the actual concert. Just click on MORE: https://youtu.be/gA6S3OXUKCc

Given so few calendar listings so far, clearly the format is still a work-in-progress.

For updated listings of other events, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

The next events are slated for Oct. 2 with a student recital and another installment of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (below).

That other programs and dates are still missing is not surprising.

The entire UW-Madison from classes to sports, is in a state of flux about how to deal with the pandemic, with in-person classes paused through Sept. 25, and possibly longer.

Many questions about concerts remain as the process plays out.

All live-stream concerts will be free. But they will NOT be archived, so they will be taken down as soon as they end.

A donation link to the UW Foundation will be included to help cover the costs of the livestreaming and also other expenses.

Will choral concerts even take place, given that singing is especially risky because the singers can’t wear masks and social distancing is nearly impossible to provide with groups?

What about chamber music groups like the Pro Arte Quartet, the Wingra Wind Quintet and Wisconsin Brass Quintet? Many faculty members, who have to teach virtually and online right now, are no doubt concerned about the possible health risks of playing in groups.

And what about the excellent UW Symphony Orchestra, which The Ear considers a must-hear local orchestral ensemble? Those musicians too will have a hard time social distancing – unless individual safe performances at home or in a studio are edited and stitched together.

So far, though, we know that the University Opera will offer “I Wish It Were So,” an original revue of the American opera composer Marc Blitzstein on Oct. 23.

Here is a link to a story with more details about the production: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/classical-music-the-university-opera-announces-a-new-season-that-is-politically-and-socially-relevant-to-today-the-two-shows-are-a-virtual-revue-of-marc-blitzstein-and-a-live-operatic-version-of/

What do you think of the plans for the concert season?

Do you have any suggestions?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Sept. 11, 2020. Here is music to mark the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks during the coronavirus pandemic. What would you choose?

September 11, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

CORRECTION: The Virtual Gala fundraiser for the Handel Aria Competition started last night, and will end on Thursday, Oct. 1 – NOT on Oct. 11, as mistakenly stated in yesterday’s blog headline. Here is a link with more information: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/classical-music-the-worldwide-virtual-and-online-gala-fundraiser-for-the-handel-aria-competition-starts-today-and-runs-through-oct-10-donations-will-be-matched-up-to-2000/

By Jacob Stockinger

Today marks 19 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For the basic information, here is a Wikipedia summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks

There are many ways to remember and honor the dead and the injured in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Shanksvillle, Pennsylvania. And in past years, The Ear has offered many different ones.

There are the well-known requiems by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Faure; passions by Bach; and other works.

There are also the pieces especially composed for the commemoration, including “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning work by John Adams that incorporates police tapes and phone calls, and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11.”

But this year there is the coronavirus to deal with and complicate the commemorations.

Here is a story from NBC News about how the official commemorations, both real and virtual, will be affected by the pandemic.

And somehow in such circumstances, it feels like back to basic is a good approach.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is the most universal piece of mourning that The Ear knows: American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as played by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

It serves to mark 9/11 but perhaps also the more than 190,000 American deaths so far from the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can find other versions and other pieces on YouTube:

What piece would you want to hear to mark this sad and solemn occasion?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
7 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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