The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here is a true tale of a famous Mozart opera, sexual assault and Trump Tower

December 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

World-famous avant-garde stage director Peter Sellars (below, in a photo by Christian Carisius for the European Press Photo Agency) is known for his unorthodox recasting of operas and Bach cantatas.

peter-sellars-2016-cr-christian-charisiuseuropean-pressphoto-agency

But one of his productions, done almost 30 years ago, has proven especially prescient.

It involved the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which years ago he set in Trump Tower.

The plot centers on the medieval “droit du seigneur” that allowed a nobleman to be entitled by law to have sex with a servant on her wedding night before the husband did. (In the YouTube video at bottom is the famous and so breathtakingly beautiful Forgiveness scene, featured in the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” with the faithful Countess and the philandering Count that ends the masterpiece opera.)

In 1988 Sellars set the opera on the 52nd floor of the luxurious Trump Tower (below), as the equivalent of an aristocratic estate, of net-feudalistic excess and wealth.

trump-tower-up-to-sky

With great insight and articulateness, Sellars recently discussed with The New York Times the inspired settings in light of the past history, campaign and recent election of President-elect Donald Trump.

The Ear found the interview both enlightening and entertaining, and he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/arts/music/remember-when-figaro-was-set-in-trump-tower.html?_r=0

It makes you wonder: How will other forms of art deal with the new administration?

Could it be that we are in for more activist protest art, something of a return to the 1960s and such efforts as Barbara Garson’s 1967 “MacBird,” which recast Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” as a theatrical satire of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson as the Macbeths following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or JFK?

What do you think?

Can you think of other works that lend themselves to such an approach to contemporary affairs?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: If a perfect debut concert exists, new UW-Madison faculty violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino gave it last Friday night. Plus, a concert of music for two harpsichords takes place Saturday night.

November 19, 2015
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ALERT: On this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the Madison Christian Community Church, 7118 Old Sauk Road, on Madison’s far west side, Northwestern University music Professor Stephen Alltop and Madison Bach Musicians’ artistic director Trevor Stephenson will present a program of masterworks for two harpsichords including: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in C major (BWV 1061); selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s elegant “Pièces de clavecin en concerts“; and a very zingy transcription of Luigi Boccherini’s famous “Fandango.” Plus, Stephen Alltop will perform selections from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and Trevor Stephenson will play three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday night saw the bloody terrorist attacks and murders in Paris, France. And we were all understandably preoccupied then with those events.

That would not have seemed an auspicious time for a new music faculty member to make a debut.

Yet that is exactly what the new UW-Madison violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino (below, in a photo by Caroline Bittencourt) did. And it turned out to be a remarkable event: a pitch-perfect concert for the occasion.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino CR caroline bittencourt

Let’s start by saying that Park Altino is a complete violinist and has everything: pitch, tone, speed, depth and stage presence. But hers is the quiet and self-effacing kind of virtuosity. There were no show-off works by Paganini or Sarrasate on the program.

The concert opened in dimmed lighting, as she played (below) the Solo Sonata No. 3 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. She dedicated the opening movement –- which you can hear played by Arthur Grumiaux in a YouTube video at the bottom –- to the people of Paris and said that the slow movement reminded her of a mysterious prayer or meditation.

She was right.

Simultaneously alone and together: Is there a better summing up of how we were feeling that night? And her mastery in voicing the difficult fugue was impressive as well as moving.

Let others play and hear once again Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or “La Marseillaise.” The Ear will long remember that Bach played in that context. Thank you, Professor Park Altino.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino playing solo Bach

Then she turned effortlessly from grave seriousness and talked about the Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives (below) and how it borrows from hymn tunes and songs from popular culture. And with laughs she then related all that background to herself when she was growing up in Korea and forming her image of America from popular culture and TV shows such “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Anne of Green Gables” and from cartoons such as “Popeye.”

She was both informative and charming as she Ives-ified Korea and Koreanized Ives. And she totally connected with the audience. If you were there, you could tell. You felt it.

Charles Ives BIG

After intermission came a charming and relatively unknown miniature: the Romance in A Major, Op. 23, by the American composer Amy Beach (below). How refreshing it was to hear an immigrant musician enlighten us natives about our own musical history. It is all about new perspectives. Are you listening, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and other isolationists, anti-immigrationists and xenophobes?

Amy Beach BW 1

And then came a masterpiece by Johannes Brahms.

She chose the Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. It is not as dramatic as the other two violin sonatas, but relies instead on slow tempi to convey the geniality of its beautiful melodies and harmonies.

It proved the perfect ending to the perfect recital on that dreadful night of massacres and loss, fear and terror. It proved what so much music can do and should be doing, especially these days: offering a balm for the heart and soul.

Her program and playing brought to mind the inspiring words of Leonard Bernstein, who had to conduct a program right after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which happened 52 years ago this Sunday:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It must be also be said that Park Altino had the perfect partner in Martha Fischer, who heads the collaborative piano program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Even during the most difficult and thorny piano parts, such as in the Ives sonata, Fischer never upset the balance, never departed from the right dynamics, never lost a sense of transparency and always saw eye-to-eye with the violinist in interpretation. She possessed complete technical and interpretive mastery.

The two musicians really proved to be co-equal partners. They make a great pairing or partnership, and it was clear from their stage presence that they like performing with each other and are on the same wavelength.  With their seamless playing, they showed exactly the difference between accompanying and collaborating.

Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Martha Fischer

That makes The Ear very happy. He loves the combination of violin and piano, and now he hopes he has a lot more of it to look forward to from these same two performers -– works he once hoped to hear from the outstanding partnership of Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry and UW-Madison virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor, which started but never fully materialized.

So many works come to mind. The violin and keyboard sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli and Tartini. (The Ear admits it: He prefers the piano to the harpsichord in Baroque works.) The violin sonatas, perhaps even in complete cycles, of Mozart and Beethoven. The various violin works by Schubert, perhaps in the annual Schubertiades. Sonatas by Schumann and Brahms. Sonatas by Faure, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. Sonatas and rhapsodies by Bartok. Sonatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

And then there are the possibilities of her performing violin concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (apparently its music director, Andrew Sewell, is a close friend of hers) and the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The possibilities make The Ear swoon with anticipation.

So when you see that Soh-Hyun Park Altino will play again, be sure to mark your calendars and datebooks. You do not want to miss her.

Ever.

 


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: The centennial of British composer Benjamin Britten was Friday. Here are three fine appreciations of him and his music. Plus, you can watch the State High School Honors Concerts today and Monday on Wisconsin Public Television.

November 24, 2013
2 Comments

ALERT: Wisconsin‘s finest young musicians (below) unite for one of the most rewarding musical experiences of their lives. Wisconsin School Music Association’s (WSMA) High School State Honors Concerts were recorded Oct. 24, 2013 at Madison’s Overture Center. The show is part of the Young Performers Initiative to celebrate Wisconsin’s young performers and those who inspire them. The hour-long special airs this afternoon at 5 p.m. and Monday night at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television’s main channel and also on alternative The Wisconsin Channel. For more information about other air times and channels, here is a link: http://wptschedule.org/episodes/44717914/2013-State-Honors-Concerts/

wpt state honors 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

No one could blame you if you missed the centennial of British composer Benjamin Britten (below).

After all, the Britten celebration was largely overshadowed by the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which also fell on this past Friday, Nov. 22.

But Benjamin Britten was a great composer, for more reason than many of us realize.

Benjamin Britten

Here are three essays – two from NPR and one from The New York Times – that I found particularly helpful and insightful, especially the detailed explanations by Baltimore Symphony Orchesrra conductor Marin Alsop (below) explanation to Scott Simon of Britten’s “War Requiem” (see the YouTube video at the bottom) and her three points about what makes Britten so important and unique. (Be sure to listen to the longer program rather than read the short text):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/23/246386046/consumed-by-violence-with-hope-for-peace-britten-s-war-requiem

Marin Alsop big

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/14/245211949/act-like-you-know-benjamin-britten

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/arts/music/the-village-that-benjamin-britten-never-left.html?_r=0

Do you have a favorite piece by Benjamin Britten?

What is it and why is it a favorite?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: What music does the assassination of JFK bring to mind for you today on the 50th anniversary of his death?

November 22, 2013
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (below), or JFK, in Dallas, Texas.

WH/HO Portrait

It was a momentous event in so many ways for the country. And like many of you, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news flash of his shocking death.

One of JFK’s legacy, one deeply encouraged and acted on by his First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was to revitalize the American art scene and enhance it with involvement and help from the government.

That so now irks the conservative philistines who want to zero out the budgets for NPR, PBS, the NEA and the NEH, who want an ignorant citizenry that will buy into their distorted lies and mean-spirited stupidities.

But how fitting for the New Frontier was that quiet cultural revolution promoted by JFK during his short tenure in The White House.

Artists responded enthusiastically to JFK and his death. How I recall the music that was put together quickly and performed on the then relatively new medium of television. I think the requiems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi were performed and broadcast, as was Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” – a favorite of JFK and a work that was given its world premiere by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet in 1936. Gustav Mahler‘s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” were also performed.

Here is a link to a great story on NPR about what music was played in JFK’s hometown of Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Erich Leinsdorf:

http://www.npr.org/2013/11/21/246328972/moved-by-kennedys-death-the-boston-symphony-played-on

I remember the specific works that for me struck the right chords, so to speak, about the murderous death of the President.

One was the Requiem by Gabriel Faure (below). The whole work is so beautiful and gentle, peaceful and calm – and how we all needed beauty and gentleness, peace and calm, that awful weekend — and it was completely unknown to me.

faure-1

I liked all the movements. “In Paradiso” was one. But I also liked the “Pie Jesu” and the “Libera me.” But what stuck me most and keeps resonating is the “Sanctus.” Here it is in a YouTube video, and be sure to read the comments from other listeners:

The other work I remember from those events is the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below). I had known it before. But this was when it took on real meaning.

Johannes_Brahms

I remember hearing and loving the movement “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” But the part that really got me choked up was not that one or the Funeral March or even the fabulous “Here on Earth We Have No Abiding City,” with its fabulous fugue “Death, Where Is Thy Sting; Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?.”

It was the final movement, “Blessed Are The Dead for Their Works Live on After Them.” I loved the secular, but respectful and even loving quality of the text and of course the music. That allowed it to appeal to the entire nation and to all people everywhere around the world, regardless of their faith or beliefs.

It seemed so fitting and so true, then; and it still does now.

Here it is:

What works of classical music come to mind for you when you think of that awful day in Dallas and terrible weekend in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Three performances of choral music this weekend by the Madison-based Cecilia Singers will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

November 19, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based Cecilia Singers will begin its 2013-2014 season with three performances of a special concert marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.  “Remembering John Fitzgerald Kennedy (below):  A Choral Tribute” can be heard on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. 

WH/HO Portrait 

Here is a schedule: Performances are on Friday, Nov. 22, at 7:30 p.m., at St. James Catholic Church (1204 St. James Court.); on Saturday, Nov. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church (below is its interior, 1021 University Ave.); and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24, at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Monona.

luther memorial church madison

Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Willy St. Co-op (east and west), Orange Tree Imports, and The Pink Poodle for $12 general admission, or $10 for seniors; or at the door for $15 and $12, respectively.

The program includes: “French Choruses” from “The Lark” by Leonard Bernstein; Four Motets by Aaron Copland; “To Be Sung On The Water” by; Samuel Barber; “New England Frostbite” by Robert Kreutz (below top, 1923-1997); “Ave Maria” by  Edwin Fissinger (1920-1990); “Songs of Hope and Deliverance” by Robert Kreutz (1923-1997); “Improperium” by  Robert Kreutz, who began composing this piece the night JFK was assassinated as a very personal response to the tragedy; “In Paradisium: by Edwin Fissinger (heard at bottom in a YouTube video).

Robert Kreutz

Edwin Fissinger

Group founder and director Joseph Testa, who used to direct choral music at Edgewood College until 2008, says he conceived the program as a way to recognize and celebrate a man of great intelligence and charm coupled with a deep appreciation for the arts and the role they play in a free society.

Joseph Testa color

To underscore the theme, an all-American a cappella program of music by composers of JFK’s generation was chosen, Testa says.

Testa adds: “Some of the works simply represent the creative endeavors of composers active during President Kennedy’s lifetime; other were selected because they seemed to hold a poignant connection to JFK:  for example, a Latin-texted work with a clear nod to his Catholicism, or a work utilizing a text of his favorite poet, or in one case a collection of works that speak to the struggles of Communism in Eastern Europe during the 1980’s — something very real and of great concern at the time of his own presidency.   

“President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy brought a sophisticated awareness of the arts to our national attention, hosting poets, musicians, artists, composers and Nobel Prize winners for State Events at the White House, thereby elevating the image of artist and intellectual in American life.  This aspect of his presidency is certainly one for all Americans in the arts to celebrate as we pause on this 50th anniversary.

“At the same time, we also celebrate the composers whose works are being performed, thereby again honoring the life of JFK and the legacy he envisioned for an America as a country rich in culture for having embraced the arts.”

About the Cecilia Singers (below, in rehearsal, in a photo by Joseph Testa): Joseph Testa founded Cecilia Singers in 2009 as a professional choir based on a four-prong mission:  advance the choral art form, advance choral artistry, be an educational entity for the choral arts through lecture and performance, and to create employment opportunities for gifted and talented singers.

Cecilia Singers rehearsing

The personnel and size of the ensemble vary based on the needs of the given repertoire. Singers completing a successful audition are offered a contract for a specific set of concerts and the requisite rehearsals. Each singer receives the music several weeks prior to the first rehearsal and is expected to come to that rehearsal with all the music learned. This format allows the rehearsal time to be truncated to just three weeks prior to a performance, at which point a series of extended rehearsals are held in close succession to work on ensemble.

 


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