The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New biography explains the professional importance and personal quirks of famed maestro Arturo Toscanini

July 8, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You  know  how sometimes a movie preview or trailer gives so much away of the story that it leaves you feeling you don’t really need to see the movie.

That’s how The Ear felt when he read a recent review in The New York Times of a new and exhaustive biography by Harvey Sachs of the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini (below).

Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957) conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a televised recording of Verdi‘s ‘Hymn of the Nations‘, 1944. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is the second time that Sachs has written about the maestro. This time, however, he had access to recently released private papers.

And boy, are there some surprises.

In his lengthy review, Robert Gottlieb gives The Ear just about all he wants to know or needs to know about the Italian master from his youth (below, ca. 1890) to old age — and then some. (In the YouTube video at the bottom you can hear and see Toscanini conducting “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner in  1948.)

The Ear knew Toscanini was important. But he was never really quite sure why.

Now he knows.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/books/review/toscanini-biography-harvey-sachs.html

Read the review and see if you agree.

And tell us what you make of Toscanini the musician and Toscanini the man.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: JFK was assassinated 51 years ago today. He loved Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” In his memory, here it is – in two forms.

November 22, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Nov. 22, 2014.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (below) was killed in Dallas, Texas, 51 years ago to the day.

jfk

The Ear remembers the deep sadness and immense sense of frustration that surrounded the assassination. American politics has never seemed the same since his death.

He also remembers hearing broadcasts of the Requiem by Gabriel Faure and the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms – both fitting choices to honor the dead president.

But since then, The Ear has learned that JFK -– whose own family was well acquainted with tragedy and loss — especially liked the saddest of all music, the “Adagio for Strings” by American composer Samuel Barber. Barber (below) had arranged it from the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 in B Minor to a String Orchestra at the request of the world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini.

barber 1

By the way, in the original string quartet form, the work was given its world premiere by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet in Rome in 1936. And the original quartet form seems somehow less lush and self-indulgent, more restrained and dignified or even complex, while the string orchestra version seems more overpowering and Romantic.

Compare the two versions for yourself by listening to both of them on YouTube.

Here is the original string quartet version done by the Cypress String Quartet in a live radio performance for WGBH in Boston, which was JFK’s hometown:

And here is the more familiar version for string orchestra in a version that has more than 3 million hits:

Which one do you like best and why?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Early music and period-instrument pioneer Frans Bruggen dies at 79. And American media don’t care.

August 17, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

He wasn’t a maestro in the usual sense.

But he surely was a master.

He was a master, even though he never seemed temperamental and never received the kind of acclaim and press that typical orchestral conductors or maestros receive -– from Arturo Toscanini through Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan to Gustavo Dudamel.

He was Frans Bruggen (below). He was Dutch and a fantastic player of the flute and the recorder. He died this past Wednesday at 79 after a long illness.

Frans Bruggen 1

But he became a pioneer conductor of early music and period instrument authenticity, adopting historically informed performance practices even from the Baroque period, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric HandelJean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi into the Classical and early Romantic periods.

As a flutist and recorder player, Bruggen was a prodigy who often performed with Dutch colleagues in the early music movement, including harpsichord master Gustav Leonhardt and cellist Anner Bylsma.

He founded the Orchestra of the 18th Century, but also went on to conduct major mainstream orchestras and to teach at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley,

I loved his performances of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.

Even as I write this, I am playing Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony from Bruggen’s set of Haydn’s minor-key, proto-Romantic “Storm-and-Stress” symphonies.

What I especially liked was the expressiveness he often brought to an early music movement that sometimes seemed mechanical or robotic in its early days. Bruggen brought subtlety and emotional connection.

In Brugen’s hands, early music sounded natural, never forced into iconoclastic phrasing or rushed tempi, as it can with Reinhold Goebel and Concerto Koln or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Bruggen’s performances never sounded deliberately goofy or self-serving. (Below is Frans Bruggen conducting.)

PX*6559535

Bruggen must have made his case persuasively. Nowadays, most early music groups also sound more expressive and subjective, not so doctrinaire, dogmatic or orthodox in their approaches.

Bruggen seemed a low-key and modest man and musician, qualities that The Ear identifies with the Dutch, including Bruggen’s own more famous conducting colleague Bernard Haitink.

The Ear hopes that Bruggen’s death brings about many reissues of his prolific discography with more high-profile publicity. His Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven symphonies are, unfortunately, largely now out of print.

Here are some links to obituaries that tell his story:

Here is a link to The Guardian, which also lists Bruggen’s five greatest contributions to early music:

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/14/frans-bruggen-dutch-conductor-orchestra-of-the-18th-century

http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/aug/14/frans-bruggen-five-greatest-greatest-recordings

Here is a story from the BBC Music Magazine:

http://www.classical-music.com/news/frans-brüggen-1934-2014

Here is a great piece from The Telegraph, also in the United Kingdom:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11034321/Frans-Bruggen-obituary.html

Curiously, it probably says something about Bruggen that I could find many obituaries from Europe and the UK, but none from the U.S., not even at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or NPR (National Public Radio).

Here is a YouTube video of Frans Bruggen, who served both composers and audiences so well, in action, playing a solo fantasy for recorder by Georg Philipp Telemann. In every way it seems a fitting tribute or homage on the occasion of his death:

 

 


Classical music education: Last Sunday afternoon, we said good-bye to master music educator and Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO) founder Marvin Rabin. The Ear thinks Rabin would have liked how he was celebrated and remembered.

January 2, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Sunday afternoon, as the winter sun was getting low in the sky and the thermometer was dropping even lower, we gathered to say good-bye to Marvin Rabin (below).

marvin rabin BW

Rabin, you may recall, died Dec. 5 at the age of 97. He was a pioneer in music education and in addition to achievements around the U.S. — especially Kentucky, Boston and Illinois — and around the globe, in 1966 Rabin came to Madison to found and direct the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, which still exists and is bigger and better than ever.

Here is a link to the WYSO website with more information:

http://wyso.music.wisc.edu

The crowd, which came from both coasts and around the U.S., was at capacity, a full house on the floor and in the balcony (below) of the sleek and contemporary Atrium auditorium at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. Apparently, even more people wanted to attend the memorial but couldn’t find seats or parking.

Rabin Memorial crowd

The Ear thinks it was exactly the kind of memorial that Marvin would have liked.

I say that for several reasons.

All the speakers — from the masterful host Dick Wolf (below top), who worked besides Marvin for decades at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and radio host son David Rubin (below bottom) to friends, admirers and former students and members of the general public — kept their remarks short, dry-eyed and to the point.

Rabin memorial Dick Wolf

David Rubin

The impromptu speakers (below) also kept the mood just right: not too serious or reverent, but leavened with wit and stories that didn’t drag on forever. In short, the mood of the memorial modeled itself on the manner of Marvin himself, at least as far as I and many others knew him.

Rabin memorial speaker

His son-in-law Frank Widman read two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke that touched on music, especially “To Music” with its fitting line: “You speech, where speeches end … Music. Space that has outgrown us, heart-space.”

But most of all, I think that Marvin — who embodied The Wisconsin Idea of reaching everyone in the state and elsewhere —  would have enjoyed all the music that was played by current WYSO students as well as former WYSO students who are now professional educators and musicians themselves. (Forgive me, but they are too many to name individually.)

Under the baton of WYSO’s music director James Smith, who directs the conducting program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the WYSO Chamber Orchestra turned in a moving and emotionally restrained performance of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

It was an appropriate choice not only for its universally appreciated sorrowful content (“the world’s saddist music”), but also because it has deep Madison ties: the world-famous work was given its world premiere in 1936 in Rome by the Pro Arte String Quartet, which has been in residence at the UW-Madison since 1940. That is what the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini heard and then asked the composer to add some string basses and orchestrate it.

Rabin memorial WYSO Chamber Orchestra

A WYSO Alumni Quartet (below, with the cellist hidden by the violist), made up of students from 1972, played the exquisite slow movement from the final string quartet, No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can hear it played by the Artemis Quartet in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

It proved the perfect work for the occasion because it is a work where Beethoven moves from the futuristic Romanticism and Modernism of the late quartets and returns to more formal structure of a Classical aesthetic that Beethoven worked with in his early Op. 18 quartets. Such an embracing of diverse styles was typical of Marvin no less than of Ludwig.

Rabin memorial WYSO alumni quartet

Following open-mic reflections and memories of Rabin by perhaps a half-dozen people the WYSO String Quartet played the poignant “Intermezzo Sinfonico,” arranged for string quartet, from Pietro Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.”

Rabin memorial WYSO string quartet

And the final touch was a slow but elegant reading, in Hebrew, of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer for the dead.

And then the relatively brief memorial was over, with some refreshments and small talk, exactly the kind of elbow-to-elbow socializing, where old friends reconnect, that Marvin excelled at and relished.

Even if you didn’t know Marvin Rabin in life, you grew to know him through the memorial.

What emerged was a man who was as devoted to life-long learning as he was to life-long teaching. And the judgment was unanimous: Marvin Rabin was a man who lived his life fully out of his love of music and his love of other people.

Rabin came across in remembrance exactly as he did in life: A zesty, energetic and witty man who was immensely smart and sensitive but who wore his gifts lightly and who was also anxious, even impatient, to share them with others.

Rabin portrait USE

And we can still learn from Marvin Rabin. His accumulated wealth came from giving himself away. And we – all of us — are the rich beneficiaries of his personal and professional generosity.

Is there any thing more to add besides: The world needs more Marvin Rabins – the more, the better; and the sooner, the better.


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet opens its new and very busy season this week with two FREE concerts of music by Mozart, Milhaud, Fritz Kreisler and Brahms plus a taping for Wisconsin Public Television.

September 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Pro Arte String Quartet (below in a photo by Rick Langer) – which became the world’s first artists-in-residence in the world when they agreed to stay at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1940 — kicks off its new season with two FREE concerts this week and much more this fall.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

On Sunday, the Pro Arte Quartet returns to “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in a live broadcast over Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Pro Arte – which celebrated its historically unprecedented centennial two seasons ago — will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Prussia” String Quartet in D Major, K 575, Darius Milhaud’s Quartet No. 7 and the rarely heard Quartet in A Minor by the Viennese violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler who is best known for his miniature works, transcriptions and pastiches.

fritz kreisler

Then at 7:30 p.m. on next Thursday, Oct. 3 in Mills Hall, the Pro Arte will perform a FREE and MUST-HEAR concert in Mills Hall. It will perform the same Mozart and Kreisler quartets as above, but the Milhaud will be replaced by the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 51, No. 1, by Johannes Brahms.

brahms3

Also, stay tuned for word about an airing date for the program that the Pro Arte is recording this coming Monday night for Wisconsin Public Television.

The by-invitation-only TV concert has a program that features a prelude by Ernest Bloch (at bottom in a YouTube video) and the famous “Adagio for Strings” quartet movement – later transcribed for string orchestra at the request of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini (below top)  — by Samuel Barber (below bottom).

Many people forget that the Pro Arte Quartet gave the world premiere of the famous “Adagio for Strings” — the slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 —  in Rome in 1936.

Toscanini Conducts

barber 1

Also watch for news this fall of an Albany Records CD release — with a local release party — of the four commissions (two string quartets and two piano quintets)– that the Pro Arte Quartet commissioned for its centennial two seasons ago. The CD was engineered by the multiple Grammy Award-winner Judith Sherman (below).

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

The two string quartets were composed from Walter Mays (below top) and John Harbison (below bottom), who is also the co-director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Walter Mays mug

JohnHarbisonatpiano

The two piano quintets were composed by Paul Schoenfield (below top) and William Bolcom (below middle) and featured the celebrated UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below bottom).

Paul Schoenfield BW klezmerish

William Bolcom gesturing.

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

Then at its FREE concert in Mills Hall at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, the Pro Arte will give the world premiere of its fifth centennial commission: a String Quartet by the contemporary Belgian composer Benoit Mernier (below). The Pro Arte originally started, you may recall, at the conservatory in Brussels.

Benoit Mernier 1

And finally, next May, the Pro Arte Quartet travels to Europe – to its home city of Brussels, Belgium, as well as London and maybe Paris – to perform works from its centennial commissions.

And there is still more to come, including a book about the Pro Arte Quartet by the retired UW-Madison historian turned music critic and guest writer for Isthmus and for this blog John W. Barker (below).

John-Barker

 


Classical music: He is gifted, gay and French-Canadian. Could Yannick Nezet-Seguin be the next superstar conductor? A lot of people think so. Read why in The New York Times and hear his Carnegie Hall concert last night on NPR. What do you think?

January 18, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all remember the superstar conductors, conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. Even the popular media recognize them as celebrities. More recently, one could conceivably put Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev in the same category.

The most recent one to capture and hold the public’s imagination in such a charismatic way was Gustavo Dudamel (below), the passionate and almost hyperactive young man who emerged from poverty in Venezuela through the “El sistema” that offered free classical music education. He now is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

dudamel-wild49754818

Probably the latest candidate for that elite club is Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Torsten Kjelstrand/NPR with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert of Shostakovich, Ravel and Szymanowski that was webcast last night by NPR.) And I can think of no better introduction to him than a long profile by The New York Times critic and writer Daniel J. Wakin that appeared last weekend.

carnegie_philly

Where do you start to convey his personality? The fact that the 35-year-old French-Canadian native of Montreal is openly gay? The Tahitian Turtle Tattoo? The great reviews? The pumped-up chest that earned the short 5-5 conductor  the nickname of Mighty Mouse from renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato? His quick rise to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the ranks of top, world-class orchestra conductors?

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

I doubt he will be known as Yanni, since Yanni is already reserved for the New Age composer, who also is often dubbed “Yawni.”

But the boyish conductor just might become a one-name celebrity – something like “Yannick” in the way that Bernstein was “Lenny.” He certainly projects that kind of intensity and he sure gets results.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

You can make up your own mind about the man who hopes to rebuild the special “Philadelphia Sound”  of Eugene Ormandy that relied on strings the way the Chicago Symphony Sound relied on brass.

Here is a link to the profile:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/arts/music/yannick-nezet-seguin-is-at-the-top-of-the-orchestra-game.html?_r=0

And here is a link to the archived webcast of last night’s concert in Carnegie Hall. Be sure to read the “Read More” button: 

http://www.npr.org/event/music/169038777/the-philadelphia-orchestra-at-carnegie-hall

If you heard him, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


What classical music best memorializes the terrorist attacks of 9/11?

September 11, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 11th anniversary of 9/11 – Sept. 11, 2001.

What is the best music to pay homage to those terrible events and that awful loss of life – and yes, of such landmark buildings as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City (below top), the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 (below bottom) crashed to spare the White House or Capitol?

Since then quite a few popular songwriters and classical composers have memorialized the terrible event in music that specially refers to 9/11. Some of the works have even won prizes and already obtained a certain currency or popularity among performers. (Last season, the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls,” which won a Pulitzer Prize.)

Here is a list of the most famous ones, including recent and brand news works by John Adams, Steve Reich, Stephen Paulus, Joan Tower and John Corigliano among others.

You can find many of the on YouTube.

http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/20thcenturymusic/tp/9-11-Classical-Music.htm

But call me old-fashioned.

I have heard some of the new music, but generally I am more moved by the familiar melodies and harmonies that resonate with other personal memories and personal moments to heighten the effect.

For me, the best 9/11 memorial music is still the “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber (below), especially in its original string quartet version which I find more intimate and transparent, less overwhelming than the orchestral version the composer made for the conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Then I would choose the Funeral March movement from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Or maybe I would choose the quiet poignancy of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Gaze” or restrained sadness the E-flat minor and B-flat minor preludes and fugues (both at bottom), from the same composer’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. I like that very old music composers and music can still speak to and capture contemporary events and current sadness. That is part of what makes such composer and music great.

Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” would also be a fine choice as would the slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 and especially Brahms’ “German” Requiem and Faure’s Requiem.

What music would you choose to best memorialize 9/11?

The Ear wants to hear.


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