The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why aren’t America’s modernist composers as well as known as its modernist artists?

August 6, 2016
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, the culture critic Terry Teachout posed an interesting question in a column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

Why, he asked, aren’t America’s 20th-century modernist composers as well known as its modern artists such as Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko?

Sure, you know of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, and you hear their music performed and played often.

But what about Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston and William Schuman (below)? Or even the concert music of Leonard Bernstein? (You can hear Bernstein conducting one of his favorite works by William Schuman, the energetic “An American Festival Overture,” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

William Schuman

You rarely hear their music.

And you rarely hear about them.

Why is that?

And how can it be fixed – if it should be fixed?

Here is Teachout’s take, which involves the focus of the programs at this summer’s Aspen Music Festival.

Read it and see what you think:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-forgotten-moderns-1468445756

Then let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.


UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet to perform Beethoven, Mozart and Kirchner this Friday to kick off the 25th season of Midsummer Music in Door County.

May 14, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement about the summer classical music festival in Door County:

Sister Bay, Wis. — On Friday, May 15, the world-famous Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) returns to Door County to kick off the Midsummer’s Music 25th anniversary season.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

The Pro Arte Quartet, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, is often praised for its energy, precision and intensity.  Comprised of four world-class musicians, the group consistently delivers delightfully balanced and elegantly executed performances.

For this concert, the group will perform works by Beethoven, Mozart and Kirchner.  And to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet, every guest in attendance will receive an elegant coffee table book about the group’s rich history.

This concert takes place on Friday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ephraim Moravian Church (below).

Tickets to the Pro Arte Quartet performance are $30 for adults and $10 for students.  Ephraim Moravian Church is located at 9970 Moravia St, in Ephraim. (Below top is a photo on the exterior, below bottom of the interior.)

01-01

01-01

First on the program is the String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4, by Ludwig van Beethoven (below). It is one of six early quartets in the Opus 18 group dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz.  It is the only one of the six to be written in a minor key that is often considered Beethoven’s most typical and expressive key.)

Its composition dates from 1800 and is contemporaneous with his First Symphony and his Third Piano Concerto, both also in the key of C, plus the Septet for Winds and Strings in E-flat Major, which endured as one of his most beloved compositions during his lifetime.

This quartet also comes from a time in Beethoven’s life when the 30-year-old composer fell deeply in love with a younger woman, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi — only to be rejected, perhaps because she had higher social status than he did. (You can hear the dramatic opening movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

young beethoven etching in 1804

Following the Beethoven will be the String Quartet No. 4 by Leon Kirchner (below). Kirchner is one of America’s finest composers. He died in 2009 at the age of 90, only three years after completing his String Quartet No. 4, which was composed for the Orion Quartet.

His musical style has been described as linear, chromatic and rhapsodic, but also rhythmically irregular with contrasting textures and tempos. Kirchner waited nearly 40 years to write this last of his string quartets after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Third Quartet in 1966.

leon kirchner

Concluding the program will be the Quartet in A Major, K. 464, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is one of the six string quartets by Mozart known as “The Haydn Quartets.”  Mozart had recently met the older and revered composer Joseph Haydn, who had already made a significant name for himself as a composer of string quartet music.

In 1784, Mozart was invited to join Haydn, and two other well-established composers, Dittersdorf and Vanhal, in a private evening of chamber music playing.  Another such meeting took place the next year, which Mozart’s father, Leopold, was invited to attend.

This is where Haydn is reported to have told Leopold, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.  He has taste, and, what is more, the greatest knowledge of composition.”

The younger Mozart returned the esteem by dedicating this group of six quartets to Haydn, “From his friend, W. A. Mozart.”  Written in 1785, it comes from one of Mozart’s most prolific periods that saw several masterpieces come to fruition including not only this quartet but three of Mozart’s most beloved piano concertos.

Mozart old 1782

The original Pro Arte Quartet (below) was founded in 1911 by students at the Brussels Conservatory. The group was known for performing new works by composers such as Bela Bartók, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg and Vitorrio Rieti. They made their American debut in 1926 at the Library of Congress and went on to tour the country 30 times.

Pro Arte Quartet in 1928 Onnou far left

While on tour in 1940, the group became stranded in Madison when Hitler invaded Belgium.  The University of Wisconsin came to their aid by offering them permanent residency. In the 1950s, Pro Arte became the University of Wisconsin’s faculty string quartet.  Over the years, there have been a total of 26 musicians who were official members of the Pro Arte Quartet.  The current four members have performed together since 1995.

Members (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) David Perry, violin; Suzanne Beia, violin; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, violoncello have performed together for over 20 years.  They perform every year as part of Midsummer’s Music Festival.

Pro Arte 3 Rick Langer copy

Midsummer’s Music is known for hosting superb chamber concerts at unique venues throughout Door County’s many charming communities. Midsummer’s Music Festival features top-tier musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Philharmonic and the Aspen Music Festival.

Performances take place in a variety of unusual spaces ranging from a quaint community church, to a 120-year old lakeside warehouse to an elegant private home of an area resident.

The main festival is comprised of 23 concerts and runs June 12 through July 14.  There is also a Labor Day series that made up of 10 concerts that take place Aug. 28 through Sept. 7.

For more information, visit the newly designed Midsummer’s Music website at www.midsummersmusic.com or call 920-854-7088.


Classical music: You Must Hear This -– the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch.

October 26, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

I saw and heard Madison-born and Madison-raised violist Vicki Powell (below) last Wednesday night. That was when the alumna of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the UW-Madison School of Music, the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute  who now plays with the New York Philharmonic and other prestigious groups and who has participated in the Marlboro and Aspen festivals, returned from New York City to solo with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Vicki Powell at MCO

It was a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable performance as well as very affordable event, as you can read in the review by John W. Barker that was posted yesterday.

Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/classical-music-the-middleton-community-orchestra-opens-its-season-with-polished-viola-playing-from-vicki-powell-and-infectious-enthusiasm-from-the-entire-orchestra-in-a-dvorak-symphony/

After the concert done in the terrific 90-minute, no intermission format that I think attracts many people, there was a meet-and-greet, with cookies and punch, where the public and the musicians could mingle – and did.

MCO June 2014 reception

That’s when I went up to the lovely, gifted and poised Vicki Powell and remarked on how beautiful her playing had been with the MCO under conductor Steve Kurr (below top). I was quite taken with her reading of the rarely heard Fantasy on Themes by Mozart for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (below bottom).

Hummel remains a much underappeciated composer who was invited by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself to live in his house and take free lessons.

Vicki Powell and Steve Kurr MCO finale

Hummelcolor

But what really swept me away was the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by the 19th-century Romantic German composer Max Bruch (below).

max bruch

I have heard Max Bruch’s popular violin concertos – especially No. 1  in G minor — and his Kol Nidre for cello and piano as well as his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra.

But this work was completely new and unknown to me, but captivated me from the first notes. No 10 listenings or more needed to like and appreciate this work!

“I am amazed it hasn’t yet been used for a movie soundtrack,” I said to Powell.

“Really?” she said. “So am I.”

That is how beautiful and tuneful, how accessible and emotional, it is.

And maybe you will be surprised too.

So here is a YouTube video of the work performed by violist Miles Hoffman, who also comments frequently on classical music for NPR (National Public Radio). It lasts about 9-1/2 minutes and is pure loveliness.

Miles Hoffman NPR

And maybe it has indeed been used in the movies.

If so and you know, please let us know.

And let us know what you think of the piece, which The Ear thinks deserves to be programmed much more often, even though the viola is not often featured as a solo instrument with orchestra. (All the more reason to admire the Middleton Community Orchestra and its mission.)

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Brass Week in Madison kicks off with tuba and French horn concerts at the University of Wisconsin by John Stevens and Daniel Grabois, who will highlight works by contemporary UW composers.

February 10, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Call it Brass Week in Madison.

Concerts this week will feature three different brass instruments: the tuba, the French horn and the trumpet.

brass instruments

The Ear guesses it is all due more to happenstance than planning.

But whatever the origin, Brass Week begins Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music with a FREE recital by tuba professor and composer John Stevens, who will retire at the end of this semester.

It continues on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall with a FREE recital by French horn professor, who also is the latest addition to the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, Daniel Grabois.

And then on Thursday, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth will start her three performances as soloist in concertos by Haydn and Alexander Arutiunian with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain.

Helseth will be featured in a separate Q&A on this blog tomorrow.

But here are details, drawn from the UW School of Music calendar of events, about the first two concerts.

JOHN STEVENS

UW tuba professor John Stevens (below) will perform three well-known masterpieces – the Horn Quintet by Mozart, the “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Gustav Mahler and the Horn Trio by Johannes Brahms– all adapted for the tuba.

Guest artists include violinist David Perry, violist Sally Chisholm, cellist Parry Karp, all of the UW Pro Arte Quartet, and UW pianist Martha Fischer.

John Stevens

John Stevens (below with his instrument) has enjoyed a distinguished career as a teacher, orchestral, chamber music, solo and jazz performer and recording artist, composer/arranger, conductor and administrator. He has performed with every major orchestra in New York and was a member of the New York Tuba Quartet and many other chamber groups. He was principal tubist in the Aspen Festival Orchestra; toured and recorded with a wide variety of groups including Chuck Mangione, the American Brass Quintet and the San Francisco Ballet; and was the tuba soloist in the original Broadway production of BARNUM.

john stevens with tuba 1

Stevens has released two solo recordings; an LP of his own compositions titled POWER (Mark Records, 1985) and a CD titled REVERIE (Summit Records, 2006). He joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1985 and, in addition to his other duties, was the Director of the School of Music from 1991 to 1996 and 2011 to 2013.

As a composer and arranger with over 50 original compositions and almost as many arrangements to his credit, Stevens is internationally renowned for his works for brass, particularly for solo tuba, euphonium and trombone, tuba/euphonium ensemble, brass quintet and other brass chamber combinations. He is the winner of numerous ASCAP awards and has received many composition grants and commissions.

In 1997 Stevens (below, composing at his Madison home and at bottom in an interview in a YouTube video) was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to compose a tuba concerto. This work, entitled JOURNEY, was premiered by the CSO, with tubist Gene Pokorny as soloist. Recent compositions include the CONCERTO FOR EUPHONIUM AND ORCHESTRA, SYMPHONY IN THREE MOVEMENTS, a composition for wind band commissioned by a consortium of 14 American universities, and MONUMENT for Solo Tuba and String.

And here is a link to a long story by local writer Paul Baker about Stevens, his career and the activities surrounding his retirement this semester. It appeared on the outstanding blog “Fanfare” at the UW-Madison School of Music:

http://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/stevens/

John Stevens writing

DANIEL GRABOIS

The program by horn professor Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), who also curates the SoundWaves program at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, and pianist Jessica Johnson will perform a program of “All in the Family: 21st Century Music by UW-Madison Composers.”

Daniel Grabois 2012  James Gill

The works include “Gossamer Snowfall, Crystalline Pond” (2000), by UW saxophone professor Les Thimmig (below); 
the world premiere of “War Suite” (2014) by
 Alex Charland
 (1. War Song, 
2. Dirge, 
3. Ballad); “Indigo Quiescence” (2000) by Les Thimmig; “Soliloquy in June” (2000) by Les Thimmig; the world premiere  “Antilogy” (2014) by Daniel Grabois;
Sonata for Horn and Piano (2008) by John Stevens; and “Song at Dusk” (2000) by Les Thimmig
.

Les Thimmig color

Daniel Grabois is Assistant Professor of Horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The former Chair of the Department of Contemporary Performance at the Manhattan School of Music, he is the hornist in the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a sextet of brass and percussion soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary. With Meridian, he has performed over 50 world premieres, released 10 CDs, received two ASCAP/CMA Adventuresome Programming Awards, and toured worldwide, in addition to recording or performing with rock legends Duran Duran and Natalie Merchant and performing the music of Frank Zappa for the composer himself.

UW School of Music

The author/composer of two etude books for horn, Grabois has appeared as a frequent guest with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and has performed in New York and on tour with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and many other ensembles. He also appears on over 30 CD recordings, and has recorded a concerto written for him by composer David Rakowski. Grabois taught horn for 14 years at The Hartt School, and has taught courses on the business of music at both the Hartt and the Manhattan School of Music.

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