The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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Classical music: Music professor John Schaffer is retiring from UW-Madison. A benefit jazz concert on Saturday, June 1, will celebrate his career as a teacher and former director of the Mead Witter School of Music

May 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Professor John Schaffer (below), who served as the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music for 15 years from 1997 to 2012, is retiring this summer.

A jazz concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, at Full Compass Systems, located at 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona,  will celebrate his retirement. Details and ticket information are below.

Here is a summary of his major achievements, as compiled by a colleague:

During his tenure as director, John Schaffer:

• Raised more than $10 million for music scholarships, including the Paul Collins graduate fellowships and the Steenbock undergraduate scholarships, more than doubling all student support.

• Secured funding for three endowed professorships: Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry; piano virtuoso and Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bronze medal winner Christopher Taylor; and acclaimed jazz pianist Johannes Wallmann.

• With then-chancellor John Wiley, he launched plans for the new performance facility – the Hamel Music Center — that will open this fall, and raised more than $20 million in private funds for its construction.

• Established the School of Music’s inaugural Board of Visitors, which actively connects the school with a broad community worldwide as it continues to serve in an advisory and support capacity.

• Built strong relations with community organizations including the Madison Symphony Orchestra by establishing the joint residency of the Hunt Quartet – creating further student funding opportunities – and the Independent String Teachers’ Association.

• Established the Perlman Piano Trio (below), an undergraduate scholarship opportunity funded by Kato Perlman.

• Recruited faculty professors/performers with national and international reputations.

• Collaborated with the UW Foundation and Alumni Associations to present UW student performers throughout the country and world.

• Expanded student musician performances across campus, and established the twice-annual Chancellor’s Concert Series.

• Oversaw the planning for the 100th anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet, the school’s flagship ensemble-in-residence since 1938.

• Established the School of Music recording label, which during its active run released close to 50 albums of faculty artists.

• Created the Wisconsin Center for Music Technology, and was the founding editor of the journal Computers in Music Research.

• Revitalized the Jazz Studies program at UW-Madison that has expanded with additional faculty, new student jazz ensembles and the establishment of a major in jazz performance.

• Was actively involved in music administration on the national level by serving multiple terms on the board of directors of the National Association of Schools of Music, the national accrediting organization. He spent more than a decade training accreditation teams, and performing accreditation reviews of music schools and conservatories throughout the country.

• Served on numerous local boards including those of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Country Day School, the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Schaffer’s own academic work in music theory focused initially on analysis of contemporary and non-tonal music, and in artificial intelligence applications in music theory. When he returned to the faculty from being director, he re-focused his teaching on the history, theory and performance of jazz and developed new courses in the discipline and regularly coached student jazz ensembles.

After a 40-year career in academia, Schaffer is retiring to pursue other interests. For the time being, he plans to remain in the Madison area. Initially trained as a classical guitarist, his performance emphasis long ago evolved to playing jazz bass, and he’ll still be heard gigging around town, playing frequently at venues and series such as Otto’s, Capital Brewery’s beer garden, Delaney’s Steak House, Coda Cafe and the North Street Cabaret.

“The biggest reward over all my years as an educator and administrator is the impact I’ve had on the thousands of students I’ve been privileged to teach and encounter,” says Schaffer. “It’s been immensely gratifying.”

Schaffer’s contributions to music in the greater Madison area will be recognized at a benefit concert, sponsored by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, on Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Full Compass Systems, 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona. UW-Madison Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley will offer commentary and perspective. Light refreshments will be served.

Tickets for the benefit concert are $30 at the door, $25 in advance online. A limited number of student tickets are available at $15. VIP tickets are $150 and include reserved, best-in-house seating, a private pre-concert reception at 6 p.m. and other benefits.

For more information, go to: http://www.jazzinmadison.org/event/jazz-junction-benefit-concert-for-the-jazz-consortium-full-compass/

For tickets, go to:https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4236134


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Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players conclude this summer season on such a high note that one already hungers for next summer

July 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

At Immanuel Lutheran Church last Friday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players ended the 2018 summer season – their fourth — with a concert full of fascinating variety.

Four works were performed, each introduced by one of the players. Personnel shifted according to the scorings.

To begin, a core group of the organization (below, from left) — violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari, cellists Lindsay Crabb and Mark Bridges, and violist Beth Larson — played Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Quintet in C major (G. 324), which has the Italian title translatable as “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” (The piece, which has military or martial aspects to it, was featured in the soundtrack to the popular film “Master and Commander,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Typical of the composer’s prolific writing for string quintets, it is unique in offering in its seven movements a dusk-to-dawn evocation of Madrid’s street life in Boccherini’s day. This delightful work was performed with relish.

Next came a contemporary work by American composer Andrew Norman (below top). Written in his 20s, Night Screens (2002),for flute and string quartet, is a playful work inspired by the asymmetrical stained glass windows designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The music is quite tonal, but very episodic in its succession of tempos and rhythms. For this work, Amirinazari, Larson and Crabb were joined by a friend of the composer, flutist Timothy Hagen (below), now a faculty member of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Rarely heard in concert, but a really fascinating novelty is Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34. This was composed in 1919, during the composer’s stay in the U.S. It is based on two melodies whose actual Jewish origins are in doubt, but their juxtaposition and elaboration are fascinating to follow.

The colorful scoring is for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, so this drew other guest artists, Alicia Lee (below top) also of the UW faculty, and pianist Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) to join Bartsch, Amirinazari, Larson and Bridges.

Finally came a rare opportunity to encounter Johann Strauss II collaborating with Arnold Schoenberg, or rather vice-versa. For a fund-raising concert on behalf of his radical atonal ensemble in Vienna in 1925, Schoenberg made a chamber arrangement of the great waltz master’s Kaiser-Walzer or “Emperor Waltz.”

He scored it for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet — perfectly allowing seven of the eight performers (less Crabb) to offer a triumphant grand finale. Even in such a lean and reduced format, Schoenberg faithfully conveyed Strauss’s melodic genius, and brought the large audience enthusiastically to its feet.

The Willys continue to match great enterprise in programming with superb artistry in playing, all in a summer season that leaves us hungering for the next one.


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