The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Here are this week’s FREE events at the UW-Madison where the spotlight falls on new music

March 27, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This will be a busy week at the UW-Madison.

Here are the events, concerts and master classes, at the UW-Madison this week. All events are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

As you can see, a lot of new music will be featured.

TUESDAY

At noon in Morphy Recital Hall, oboist Courtney Miller (below), of the University of Iowa, will give a master class. 

At 7:30 p.m.in Mills Hall, Mike Leckrone (below top) will lead the UW Concert Band (below bottom) in a FREE concert. Sorry, no word on the program.


WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, pianist Emile Naoumoff (below), from Indiana University, will give a recital.

Sorry, no word about the program. But there is a lot of background about the acclaimed French pianist who once studied at age 10 with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger and then later took over for her. (You can see him and Boulanger in the YouTube video at the bottom.) For information, go to http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/guest-artist-emile-naoumoff-pianist/

Naoumoff will also give a master class on Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall.

THURSDAY

From 10 a.m. to noon in Morphy Recital Hall, guest pianist Emile Naoumoff will give a master class. See Wednesday’s listings for information about him and his recital.

FRIDAY

At 7 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, a concert of new music will be performed by Sound Out Loud (below) in conjunction with a two-day conference. For the complete program and more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/midwest-graduate-music-consortium-presenting-original-research-and-new-compositions/

At 7:30 in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) will give a FREE concert under conductor Scott Teeple (below bottom).

The program includes “The Leaves Are Falling” by Warren Benson as well as two Wisconsin premieres: “Across the Graining Continent” by Jonathan Newman; and Suite in E-Flat by Gustav Holst, edited by Matthews.

SATURDAY

At 1:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall, the UW-Madison Trombone Quartet performs music by Tchaikovsky,Webern, Shostakovich, Tull and Bozza among others. Members of the quartet are Thomas Macaluso, Kevin Schoeller, Matthew Bragstad and Nicolas Lawrence.

At 8 p.m. the wife-and husband piano-percussion duo Sole Nero (below), consisting of Jessica Johnson (piano) and Anthony DiSanza (percussion), will perform a faculty concert of new music.

For the complete program and program notes, plus biographies, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/sole-nero-with-jessica-johnson-and-anthony-disanza/

It is also that time of the academic year when there are a lot of student recitals and lecture-recitals, especially ones by graduate students, that might interest the public. This week, The Ear sees at least half a dozen listed including those by a cellist, violinist, hornist, trumpeter and flutist.

For more information, go to: http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/


Classical music: The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter was born 100 years ago yesterday. Here is a short but comprehensive memoir and appreciation with a lot of biographical information and a good critical appraisal of his playing.

March 21, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday — Friday, March 20, 2015 – brought us the first day of spring.

It also marked the centennial of the birth of the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (below).

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was such a complex and towering figure that it would take a book to really do justice to him and to his career.

But the following essay by Steve Wigler for the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) does an excellent job for a short-form piece of criticism.

With one exception that gets no mention.

We now know beyond question that Richter (below) was a gay man who was forced by the Soviet government into a marriage of convenience and camouflage.

Somehow that information seems particularly pertinent to The Ear, given the growing acceptance of LGBT people and of marriage equality.

richterwithcross1

Still, Wigler’s essay is an excellent read and includes a YouTube video – there are many, many YouTube videos of Richter, who had an immense repertoire, playing. This video is of a live performance by Richter in which he plays the last movement of the first piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

You can hear the power and energy, the subtleties and excitement, to say nothing of the originality of interpretation, that Richter brought to music.

Richterconcerto

Enjoy it -– and tell us if you ever heard Richter live and what is your favorite performance by Sviatoslav Richter with a link to a YouTube video is possible.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/03/19/393778706/sviatoslav-richter-the-pianist-who-made-the-earth-move

 


Classical music: Pop pianist Bruce Hornsby takes a surprising turn to classical music. He performs in Madison on Oct. 30.

September 19, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Pop pianist Bruce Hornsby (below) has made quite the reputation for himself over the past 25 years or so as a keyboard wizard — and singer — who explores all kinds of music, including rock and folk, with impressive improvisations and interpretations.

bruce hornsby with piano

But imagine The Ear’s surprise when Hornsby announced that he was looking and playing and even programming classical music as well as jazz.

And on top of that, some of the classical music he is favoring comes from the Second Viennese School – the difficult 12-tone and atonal composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. He also plays music by Gyorgy Ligeti and Olivier Messiaen.

Clearly, Hornsby’s classical tastes runs to early modernism. One can’t be sure that kind of music will be included in the upcoming concert, but it sure sounds as if it will.

Hornsby’s concert in Madison is in Overture Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30. Tickets run $39.50 to $59.50.

Here is a link to more information about the concert and tickets, which have been on sale for about two weeks now and which can also be reserved by calling the Overture Center box office at (608) 251-4848.

http://www.overturecenter.org/events/bruce-hornsby

Hornsby also talked to All Things Considered, on NPR or National Public Radio, about his turn toward the classics, especially in the wake of being a relatively late bloomer as a student instrumentalist. (And the classical stuff he plays is hard and very challenging both for performers and listeners.) But you can tell he has impressive technique in the YouTube video at the bottom.

You may also notice that buying a concert ticket gets you a copy of his latest 25-track, 2-CD set with The Noisemakers called “Solo Concerts,” which includes some of the classical music.

Anyway, here is a link to the NPR story about Bruce Hornsby’s Classical Moment:

http://www.npr.org/2014/08/23/341957012/bruce-hornsbys-modern-classical-moment?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=music

 

 


Classical music Q&A: University of Wisconsin conductor James Smith discusses the program of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Sibelius that the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform at a FREE concert this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Also, UW soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn will sing Mahler songs in a FREE concert Thursday afternoon at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, plus a WORT-FM show on Thursday morning highlights the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its music director John DeMain.

September 25, 2013
1 Comment

TWO ALERTS: On this Thursday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, UW-Madison dramatic soprano Elizabeth Hagedorn (below) —  filling in for soprano Julia Faulkner, who is on a leave-of-absence this academic year — will make her local debut. The FREE concert features her singing Gustav Mahler‘s moving “Rueckert Songs” with UW pianist Martha Fischer. It is part of the Wisconsin Science Festival that combines science lectures and live classical music  in the SoundWaves program that is organized and directed by UW horn professor Daniel Grabois. For more information, visit the outstanding “Fanfare” blog at the UW School of Music: Here is a link:

 http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/soundwaves9-26-2013/

And here are links to more stories about Elizabeth Hagedorn:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/classical-music-wisconsin-born-and-vienna-based-dramatic-soprano-elizabeth-hagedorn-will-replace-julia-faulkner-at-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-for-the-next-school-year-but-faulkners/

http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/hagedorn/

Elizabeth Hagedorn 1

ALSO: Blog friend and radio host Rich Samuels (below) writes: “On this Thursday morning, Sept. 26, beginning at 7:08 a.m. on my weekly show “Anything Goes” that is broadcast from 5-8 a.m. on WORT 89.9 FM. I’ll be airing an interview I recently recorded with the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s music director John DeMain (the MSO’s 2013-2914 concert season begins, of course, on this Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

“Maestro DeMain talks about his transition from the Houston Grand Opera to the Madison Symphony Orchestra and about the artistic state of the orchestra as he begins his 20th season on the podium.

“Music for the segment will include selections from DeMain’s 1996 Grammy award-winning recording the Houston Grand Opera made when its production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was playing Broadway.

“Half the segment deals with the upcoming season and some of the younger soloists who will be heard between now and next May. We’ll hear performances by Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, violinist Augustin Hadelich, soprano Emily Birsan and the young Madison pianist Garrick Olsen (not to be confused with pianist Garrick Ohlsson).”

Rich Samuels

By Jacob Stockinger

This is the week of orchestral season debuts. Yesterday, The Ear spotlighted the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend.

But at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall on this Sunday evening — on what The Ear calls “Symphony Sunday” with performances by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the UW Symphony Orchestra and the Edgewood College Chamber Orchestra — the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under its longtime director James Smith, who also directs the UW Chamber Orchestra and is the music director of University Opera.

Smith recently granted The Ear an email Q&A about the concert:

Smith_Jim_conduct07_3130

You programmed “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky (below) because this is the centennial year of its world premiere. How important is that work in the symphonic repertoire and to music history in general?

It is often cited as a landmark work in all respects.  Several faculty members mentioned that we ought to perform it so that the students can appreciate its impact.  At the time, 1913, the harmonies, the savage rhythms and the choreography were all quite jolting to the Paris audiences.

Right from the start, the bassoon explores a new range for the instrument as it sets the stage for the pagan ritual ahead.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

How challenging technically is the “Rite of Spring” in general to perform but especially for UW undergraduate students? What makes it such a difficult work?

It is difficult on all levels: rhythmic, technical and tessitura (the comfort range of notes for a specific kind of voice or instrument).. We have performed works by Bohuslav Martinu, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Gustav Mahler who also posed special difficulties. The students are working very hard outside of the rehearsals so that we can all experience this exciting work. (Below is a photo of the UW Symphony Orchestra performing with the UW Choral Union plus a link to a video by Kathy Esposito, concert manager and public relations director at the UW School of Music, of the UW Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Smith rehearsing “The Rite of Spring” that Esposito posted on Facebook.)

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=632954003411618

UW Symphony w choral-union2

Why did you choose the “Egmont” Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven to go with this program? Are there special thematic or pedagogical reasons?

Simple answer:  It is a great way to start a program, and an opportunity for my graduate assistant to be introduced to the audience.  His name is Kyle Knox (below).  He is also an accomplished clarinetist who is the assistant principal clarinetist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Kyle Knox

The Third Symphony is not one of the most famous or popular symphonies by Jean Sibelius (below). Why did you choose to program it and what should audience members listen for or pay attention to?

Good question. After the rather romantic and somewhat conventional First and Second Symphonies, the Third Symphony loses much of the bombast and announces a more austere and restless path. As my teacher one commented, Sibelius became more and more “north” in style and mood: austere and quixotic. (The first movement can be heard in a YouTube video at the bottom as performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.)

sibelius


Classical music: What do rap and opera have in common to make them major musical blind spots for the public?

February 19, 2012
12 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, I asked: “What musical blind spots do you have?” It was inspired by the same question that was asked by the “Delayed Cadence” blog on NPR’s website, where some professional musicians started off the responses.

“What works and composers just don’t speak to you” is how I couched it. For myself, I put the Second Viennese School – the 12-tone, atonal and serial composers like Schoenberg (below), Webern and Berg– and works right at the top of my own list.

Both for me and for NPR, the question got a lot of responses from readers, both listeners and professional and amateur musicians.

Here is a link to that posting by me:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/classical-music-survey-what-musical-blind-spots-do-you-have-what-works-and-composers-just-dont-speak-to-you/

And here is a link to the original posting at NPR:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/03/146365081/where-are-your-musical-blind-spots

But apparently the national audience of NPR showed a trend toward to two big blind spots: Rap Music and Opera.

Rap (below, an image of rap legends) didn’t surprise me so much. Age, of course, is one major reason. Race and class are probably other important factors. Artistically, to me — at least with few exceptions – the music in rap seems secondary or tertiary at best. The words and rhythms seem to matter most.

So I can accept rap as social commentary, but not as a beautiful sound experience – at least not in very many cases. Oh well – poor me, I guess. But, then, why don’t I feel more deprived when I don’t hear it?

But opera as a major and popular musical blind spot?

That one took me by surprise, since opera – with all its visual elements and grandeur – seems to be thriving today while symphony orchestras and chamber music groups are suffering financially and attendance-wise.

So what do you think makes opera a blind spot?

Is it the length of operas? Or the emotional and cognitive cross-interference that often comes from mixing words and sound? The sometimes silly plots and improbable characters? The stylized costumes? The self-aggrandizing posing and dramatically exaggerated presentation? The fact that in both cases the language is often hard to understand or that the volume often makes it seem like they are singing at you? Is it the preposterous reliance on bling and gold, glamor and props? Just look at the photos of the two singers — once rap and the opera.

Here is the follow-up link to the NPR post about blind spots:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/16/146997896/why-do-people-hate-rap-and-opera

Take a look and be sure to read – or at least sample — the more than 250 comments, many of which are quire insightful and thought-provoking.

Then let us know why you either agree or disagree that opera – or rap, for that matter — is a major blind spot and why you think the way you think.  

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music survey: What musical blind spots do you have? What works and composers just don’t speak to you?

February 12, 2012
18 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I find much to praise in the honesty and intellectual forthrightness of people who admit that some important and widely accepted kinds of classical music – or art, in general – somehow escape them.

It is as though they are saying: I don’t care what everyone else thinks or says, this just doesn’t speak to me somehow.

It isn’t always the result of ignorance, stupidity or insensitivity.

It can also happen with some pretty standard works and some really big or important composers. I know of serious classical music fans, for example, who just don’t like Handel, Mozart or Brahms.

There are other examples.

Take NPR’s “Delayed Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga (below) on the music Haydn, a towering figure who never quite connects with him as he should:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/03/146365081/where-are-your-musical-blind-spots

On a smaller scale, the gifted and urbane American pianist Jonathan Biss (below), who has started a Beethoven sonata cycle and who has written an outstanding book on Beethoven (“Beethoven’s Shadow”), responded to Huizenga’s challenge by admitting that he feels bad about his ignorance of Brahms’ vocal music, especially his duets:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/07/146473471/jonathan-biss-uncovers-a-brahms-blind-spot

It is a good exercise to try on oneself. It can point to directions to grow in. Or, if you hear the same response others, it can validate your own responses. It will be telling to see who else responds to NPR’s challenge in the coming weeks and months, and what else they say.

And what about The Ear? you may wonder.

One of my major blind spots is a lot – though by no means all — of pre-Bach music, especially scratchy violin sonatas by, say, Heinrich Biber (below).

I also have a blind spot with a lot of contemporary classical music.

Both of them too often just seem boring and tedious, kind of like R&D (research and development) music. I mean, it is good music, even great music sometimes, like that of the Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi or the contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov. But too often I hear it and think, ho-hum. For me, I guess, J.S. Bach (below) remains the Big Bang.

But surely my biggest musical blind spot is the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg (below), Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Even a century after this music was written, it just doesn’t reach me directly or speak to me with enough urgency. It still seems like one ambitious but failed experiment, despite the pleas of musicians, critics and historians I respect and despite the supposed revolution that this atonal, 12-tonal and serial music brought about. Just give me a tune, please.

But what about you?

What do you consider to be your major blind spots?

What major composers or major works just escape you or disappoint you?

Are there other composers and music that you think is overrated by others?

The Ear wants to hear.


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