The Well-Tempered Ear

The Madison Symphony Orchestra seeks matching funds as it launches a musicians’ relief fund to reach $355,000 by Nov. 5

October 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has announced that a Musicians’ Relief Fund has been established with the goal of securing $355,000 to cover 100% of the orchestra payrolls for the canceled September through December 2020 subscription concerts.

This initiative is in addition to the compensation already provided to its musicians for canceled services from April 2020 to date.

To launch the fund, the MSO Board of Directors has committed current Symphony resources to guarantee 52% of the $355,000 total — $184,000 — and has informed the orchestra that the September and October orchestra payrolls will be paid in full.

MSO is seeking community support to help us raise another $171,000 to assure the orchestra’s compensation for the canceled November and December 2020 subscription concerts. 

All contributions to this effort will directly support the musicians. An Anonymous Donor has launched the appeal with a $50,000 lead gift. The campaign seeks to raise the additional funds by Nov. 5, 2020.

All contributions to the MSO Musicians’ Relief Fund are tax-deductible and will be used for musicians’ compensation.

Donations can be mailed to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, 222 W. Washington Ave., Suite 460, Madison WI, 53703.

An online donation form is found at madisonsymphony.org/relief-gift

To contribute gifts of appreciated stock or to discuss other options, contact Jeff Breisach, Manager of Individual Giving, at jbreisach@madisonsymphony.org.

“The 91 members of the Symphony are a core cultural asset of the greater Madison community,” said MSO Board President Ellsworth Brown (below). “We are committed to doing all we can to assist them through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.”

“While some MSO musicians have other day jobs, many rely heavily on the wages they earn performing with this Symphony, as well as other orchestras and ensembles in the region,” said MSO Executive Director Rick Mackie (below). “The cancellations of services have caused stress and anxiety for our artists.”

The MSO has demonstrated support of its musicians since April of this year, compensating the orchestra for all canceled rehearsals and performances. 

Generous donors, strong financial management and a federal Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Loan enabled the Symphony to pay 100% of the orchestra payrolls for the April and May subscription concerts, the spring youth education programs, HeartStrings®, Madison Opera and Overture Presents engagements, and Concert on the Green.

These unexpected paychecks provided relief to the MSO staff and to our musicians (below, with music director and conductor John DeMain in a photo by Peter Rodgers) were forthcoming with their individual appreciation.

HERE ARE SAMPLES OF THE MUSICIANS OF THE MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA EXPRESSING THEIR GRATITUDE FOR COMPENSATION RELIEF

“I am very grateful that our organization values the health of its musicians and patrons yet also understands the financial difficulty imposed on musicians by being unable to work due to the pandemic. The MSO is a gem of an organization, and if you haven’t heard it enough lately, please let me reiterate my gratitude.” 

“WOW! I am humbled to be a part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Thank you so much for valuing the musicians and honoring us with payment for cancelled rehearsals and performances. The news made me cry.” 

“As someone who makes a living totally from teaching and playing, this has been an incredibly difficult time. I lost half of my students, because they do not want to study online, and of course, all gigs were cancelled. I am truly grateful to you for making this possible. You have no idea how much this will help not only financially, but mentally as well. THANK YOU!!!


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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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Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: During the COVID-19 pandemic, hosts at Wisconsin Public Radio suggest music that expresses gratitude and hope

May 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The various hosts of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) — an indispensable companion during self-isolation at home — listen to a lot of music and think a lot about it, especially about its meaning and appeal to the public.

So it comes as no surprise that they have once again suggested music to listen to during the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting toll of COVID-19.

Almost two months ago, the same radio hosts suggested music that they find calming and inspiring. They did so on the WPR home page in an ongoing blog where they also included YouTube audiovisual performances.

Here is a link to that earlier posting, which is well worth reading and following: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Wisconsin+Public+Radio

This time, the various hosts – mostly of classical shows but also of folk music and world music – suggest music that inspires or expresses hope and gratitude. (Below is Ruthanne Bessman, the host of “Classics by Request,” which airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

Here is the genesis of the list and public service project:

“At a recent WPR music staff meeting, we talked about the many ways music can unite us and about how music can express the gratitude we feel for people and things that are important to us, often much better than words.

“That discussion led to this collection of music, which we wanted to share with you. It’s eclectic and interesting, just like our music staff.”

The composers cited include some familiar names such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten and John Williams.

But some new music, based on historical events and written by contemporary or modern composers, is also named. It includes works by the American composer Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949, below top) and the Israeli composer David Zehavi (1910-1977, below bottom). Here are links to their biographies.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_E._Gawthrop

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zehavi-david

Sound-wise, it is quite an eclectic list that runs from solo harpsichord music to orchestral and choral music as well as chamber music.

Many of the performers have played in Madison at the Overture Center, with Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at the UW-Madison and on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos.

They include: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; cellist Amit Peled and pianist Eli Kalman, who received his doctorate from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the UW-Oshkosh; conductor-composer John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers;  and superstars violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma along with Venezuelan pianist-improviser Gabriela Montero  in a quartet that played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Here is a link to the new WPR suggestions: https://www.wpr.org/wpr-hosts-share-music-gratitude-and-hope

Happy listening!

If you read the blog or listen to the music, let us know what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

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

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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Classical music: The seventh annual Make Music Madison is on Friday, June 21, and features 17 different FREE classical concerts as well as dozens of performances of jazz, folk, blues, hip-hop, swing and other genres

June 15, 2019
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REMINDER: TODAY, Saturday, June 15, at noon in Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, on the Capitol Square, the Ancora String Quartet will give a FREE performance as part of “Grace Presents.” The one-hour program includes the String Quartet in A Major, Op. 13, by Felix Mendelssohn; the String Quartet in B-flat Major, “La Malinconia” (Melancholy), Op. 18, No. 6, by Ludwig van Beethoven; and “Entr’acte” by the contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The Ear heard an earlier performance of the same program by the Ancora, and highly recommends it.

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Friday, June 21, is the Summer Solstice, which arrives at 10:54 a.m. CDT.

That means not only the first day of summer, but also the seventh annual Make Music Madison – a day-long FREE mostly outdoor festival of live performances.

The event, which is organized and staffed by volunteers and costs about $45,000,  will take place from easy morning until midnight. Madison will be joining more than 80 cities in the United States and more than 1,000 cities around the world for the global event. The estimated audience worldwide is in the tens of millions.

The local lineup is impressive.

More than 400 concerts at more than 100 venues will take place all around the Madison area.

Many genres of music besides classical will be featured: jazz, folk, ethnic, rock, blues, hip-hop, reggae, gospel, swing and more. (In the YouTube video at the bottom,  you can hear a compilation of different music and assessments from Make Music Madison participants in 2014.) 

And many forms of music, both instrumental and vocal, will be featured. (Below is the Madison Flute Club performing during last year’s event.)

Performers include professionals and amateurs, young people and adults, students and teachers, individuals and ensembles.

Some events will be more formal, while others will be jam sessions. Some events will have an open mic.

The Ear counts 17 different venues for classical music, including a public piano in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Alumni Park, between the Memorial Union and the Red Gym. Also featured there is opera singer Prenicia Clifton (below).

You will also find classical music at Metcalfe’s market in the Hilldale Mall; the First Congregational United Church of Christ near Camp Randall Stadium;  branches of the Madison Public Library; and other places. You can hear the Suzuki Strings as well as violin, viola, cello, brass, winds, piano and guitar ensembles.

Unfortunately, though, specific programs and works are not listed, which might cut into the attendance at some performances. 

To whet your appetite, here is a link to the Make Music Madison home website, with lots of background, some fine photos, a complete listing of events and the names of major funding sources, which include the Madison Arts Commission, Isthmus, Dane Arts,  WORT FM 89.9, Wisconsin Public Radio. WSUM-FM 91.7 (the student radio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and La Voz de Latinoamerica Desde Wisconsin as well as individual private donors.

To help classical fans decide what to attend and what works in their weekday schedule, here is a map of concerts. Just click on “Classical” in “Filter Map,” which is first tab on the top right, to see classical events listed by genre, location and name:

http://www.makemusicmadison.org/listings/

Have you ever attended Make Music Madison?

What did you think of it? Did you have a good time? Did you hear good music and fine performances?

Do you have any words of advice, tips or recommendations for organizers, performers and listeners?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Memorial Day – a good time to remember the civilian dead as well as the military dead. The Ear likes Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” What music would you listen to to mark the holiday?

May 27, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2019, when the nation honors the men and women who died in military service. The Ear would like to see much more attention and remembrance paid to the huge number of civilians — much higher than military personnel and soldiers — who have died in wars and military service, whose lives weren’t given but taken.

In fact, why not establish and celebrate a separate holiday to honor civilian deaths in war? Perhaps it would help to know the detailed history and background of the holiday, since it is not as straightforward or modern as you might expect:

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

What piece of classical music would you listen to in order to mark the holiday?

There is a lot to choose from.

The Ear especially likes “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by the early 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. It is a “tombeau” – a metaphorical “tomb” or “grave” used by the French to mean paying homage to the dead – in two senses.

Its neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style recalls the 18th-century world of French composers and harpsichordists including Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin. But in a second sense, Ravel (below, in 1910) dedicated each of the six movements to a friend – in one case, two brothers — who had died during World War I. So part of its appeal is that it is a very personal statement of grief.

Here is more detailed background about the piece:

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

The work was orchestrated later, which added sonic color but cut out two movements. The Ear prefers the original piano version, which seems a little more percussive, austere and straightforward — less pretty but more beautiful, and more in keeping with the holiday by evoking sentiment without sentimentality.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it in a live performance by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

But there are lots of other works to choose from by many composers: John Adams (“The Wound Dresser” after poetry of Walt Whitman); Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings); Ludwig van Beethoven (slow movements of Symphonies 3 and 7, and of the Piano Sonata Op. 26); Johannes Brahms (“A German Requiem”); Benjamin Britten (War Requiem);  Frederic Chopin (Funeral March from Sonata No. 2, polonaises, preludes and the “Revolutionary” Etude); Aaron Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Letter From Home”); Edward Elgar (“Nimrod” from “Enigma Variations”); Gabriel Faure (Requiem and Elegy for cello); Franz Joseph Haydn (“Mass in Time of War”); Paul Hindemith (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love”);  Charles Ives (Variations on “America” and “Decoration Day”); Henry Purcell (“When I Am Laid in Earth”); John Philip Sousa (“Honored Dead” March); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”); and many others, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here is a list from the British radio station Classical FM:

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/memorial/remembrance-day-music/war-requiem-britten/

Here is a list of patriotic music from Nashville Public Radio:

https://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Here is another list from an American source:

http://midamerica-music.com/blog/five-classical-works-memorial-day/

Here are more sound samples from NPR:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104341851

And here is another one from Northwest Public Radio:

https://www.nwpb.org/2015/05/22/memorial-day-music-commemorate-celebrate/

What do you think of a holiday commemorating civilian deaths in war?

What favorite piece of classical music would you play and listen to as you mark Memorial Day?

Let us know, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: Meet Isabelle Demers, who performs an unusual organ recital tonight at 7:30 in Overture Hall

April 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) welcomes the return of organist Isabelle Demers (below) for a recital tonight, Tuesday, Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Professor of organ and head of the organ program at Baylor University, Isabelle Demers enjoys a very active recital career with performances worldwide from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne to Madison.

Her program entitled The Three B’s includes music by Edward Bairstow, Joseph Bonnet, and Hector Berlioz with Demers’ own transcription of Berlioz’s blistering “Symphonie Fantastique.” She is renowned for her dazzling performances, dynamic style, and universal audience appeal.

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/demers, where you can also see Demers’ complete program, or by calling (608) 258-4141, or by going to the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ.

Here is a Q&A that the MSO did with Demers, who has more than two dozen videos on YouTube, including her own transcriptions of sections from “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that is at the bottom:

MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.

ID: I grew up in Quebec, Canada, and started piano when I was 6. Most of my family works in sciences, but my mother wanted music to be an important part of my education. I entered pre-college at the Montreal Conservatory when I was 11 and really loved it, so it was not a very hard decision to choose music as a career later on.

My mother also suggested that I learn organ when I turned 16; she thought it would be a good instrument for me, while I saw it as a way to pay for my piano lessons. I guess the moral of the story is that one should always listen to their mother.

MSO: What differentiates you from other organists?

ID: I’m much shorter and I have a lovely French-Canadian accent. Seriously, I think I have a different feel for registration because I didn’t grow up with organ music. I listened to lots of orchestral and operatic works as a teenager, and I think that it influences the way I register most works, especially transcriptions.

I also have a more extensive background as a pianist than most other organists, so virtuosic works might come slightly more easily to me. (By the time I stopped playing piano, I had learned almost all the Chopin etudes, for example.)

MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?

ID: Definitely the wide range of sounds and dynamics at our disposal! Being able to create my own sound world on every instrument I play is a very exciting part of my job. I don’t always play the same works, but even if I did, they often sound completely different when you try them on new instruments. I also like the physical aspect of playing organ; it’s good to get all your limbs moving together, especially when they are all falling on the right keys at the right time!

MSO: What would you say to someone at their first organ concert?

ID: Let yourself be moved by the instrument. Instead of trying to understand every note, listen for the bigger gestures, for the colors, for the larger picture. The organ has the potential to be very exciting and moving, but first one must forget that it is essentially a big machine.

If you don’t like the colors or the music, then hopefully it is possible to see the organist. I always find it fascinating to watch people play, and see how they can manage all the knobs and buttons on the console.

MSO: Other than playing the organ, what are some interests of yours?

ID: I love traveling, reading, spending time outside when it’s cold (which unfortunately doesn’t happen much in Texas) and cooking. I like to make ice cream, which is obviously very popular with the students as well. On my last visit to Madison I was able to try sour cream ice cream, which was delicious! I’ve tried to reproduce the recipe at home, but I think I’ll need some more practice.


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