The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!


Classical music: What is it like to play music with a spouse? Local wife-and-husband violinist and cellist open the winter Masterworks season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Brahms Double Concerto this Friday night

January 22, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. — NOT 7 as first stated here mistakenly — in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) and music director-conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom) will open the WCO’s winter Masterworks season.

The program is typical of Sewell’s eclecticism. It features well-known and lesser-known works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

It includes the Sinfonia in A minor by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach; the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, by Arnold Schoenberg; and the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102, by Johannes Brahms.

Tickets run $15-$80 with $10 student tickets available.

For more information about the concert, the performers, tickets and pre-concert dinners, call (608) 257-0638 or go to the website:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-i-3/

The highlight of the concert is sure to be the wife-and-husband team who are soloists in the Brahms concerto. They are violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and cellist Leonardo, or Leo, Altino, who teaches full-time at the Wheaton College Conservatory near Chicago and occasionally privately in Madison.  Together they have also recorded for the MSR Classics label the CD “En Voyage” with sonatas for violin and cello by Zoltan Kodaly, Maurice Ravel and Paul Desenne.

If a small ensemble such as a string quartet or piano trio has special personal dynamics to contend with, imagine how intense a husband-and-wife pairing can be.

What is it like for spouses to make music together?

That is what The Ear wanted to explore and the two soloists (below) graciously responded with the following Q&A:

Is playing together any different from playing separately or alone? How so?

Soh-Hyun: Playing together and separately are completely different experiences because of the types of listening that are involved. When we play together, our ears are immediately drawn to how our playing is matched or not in terms of articulation, shape, and decay of the notes and phrases.

We have different strengths and weaknesses that we’re now well aware of after 16 years of playing together, and we naturally rely on each other’s strengths in preparing for performances.  We have played together a lot in string quartets, piano trios  and also as a duo; I definitely feel at ease if Leo is part of the ensemble.

Leo: Absolutely! Allow me to explain it this way. Preparing for a concert is much like preparing a great meal. There are a lot of steps that go into it. You must have a clear idea or vision of what dishes you want to serve, how they complement each other, what ingredients to get, the quality of the ingredients, the proportions when combining, prepping the ingredients and on and on.

Playing together is like cooking with someone whom you’ve cooked with for decades. We anticipate each other’s moves a lot better. There is little explaining needed. We have performed together during the entirety of our marriage, and it has brought us closer together musically and emotionally. We come easily to agreement on musical issues, but we also agree philosophically – why we play and how we view each performance. We also support each other a lot and have become each other’s best teacher.

How do you resolve differences of interpretation and other issues in a given work or score?

Leo: We try each other’s ideas wholeheartedly. We make sure to give our best effort to each other’s ideas, make suggestions and try again if necessary, and often record ourselves playing so that we can be more objective. Then we make the decisions together. Sometimes, we simply go with the person with the stronger opinion about a passage.

Soh-Hyun: In the beginning of our relationship, we used to talk a lot to explain our interpretations and how to play them. Now we are convinced that the end results that we want in any passages are pretty similar; therefore, there is less talking and more trusting.

From time to time when our ideas do seem different, we go straight to recording ourselves and listen to it together. That usually stops any further arguments.  On a practical level, as parents of a seven-year-old, rehearsing together is often costly; we either need a babysitter or rehearse late in the evening. This encourages us to be efficient in our discussions and listen better in order to resolve our differences.

What role has making music together played in your relationship and your marriage?

Leo: Because we’ve played so much together, we have learned a lot about one another – how we think, what we value, each other’s pet peeves, etc. Music has helped us learn to talk – even resolve conflicts – about things that we each feel passionate about in a constructive way. (You can hear them play part of the Piano Trio No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Soh-Hyun: We are both teachers of music, and that means that we are in the business of helping others listen and play better. I think in the first several years of our relationship, I used to struggle a lot with receiving constructive criticism from Leo. I guess I felt as though I should have been able to fix the problems myself.

But now I feel lucky that I can have a free lesson whenever I want. It’s common that I will pop into the kitchen and say, “Which sounds better?” and play a few different versions of a passage. Leo gives me his preference and even tries out the passage holding my violin like a cello (which, by the way, I don’t always feel at ease about).

What else would you like to say about performing together, the Brahms Double Concerto, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or any other topic?

Leo: This was the first piece we performed together after we got married. It’s wonderful to go back to it after all these years. Writing a concerto for two solo instruments is a big challenge for any composer. The way Brahms (below) wrote for the violin and cello is almost like describing the relationship between two people who know each other deeply. Each has a unique personality. The two argue, but ultimately discover how to have a unified voice.

For example, the concerto begins with a dramatic cadenza in the cello, which winds down at the end to prepare for the more introspective entrance of the violin. The two instruments exchange ideas, raise their voices, and soon culminate in a unified manner at the end of their cadenza to invite the orchestra in.

It is a powerful and beautiful piece. I also think that great composers like Brahms wrote pieces like this almost like a tone poem in that every voice has a very significant role. Often during the concerto, even while the soloists are playing, other instruments may have equal or more important parts.

BOTH: It’s an honor to perform the Double Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and conductor Andrew Sewell, and we’re really looking forward to our working together this week.


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Classical music: Which piece of music did you first connect with emotionally and how old were you?

February 11, 2017
14 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Another weekend, another reader survey.

For The Ear, music was and remains much more an emotional experience than an intellectual one.

So he was intrigued when he came across a survey question on the Internet earlier this week.

The question was simple: When did you first connect emotionally with a piece of classical music and how old were you? And what was the piece and composer of the piece that you first connected with emotionally?

It sounds so easy. But The Ear found himself going back through time and really straining to choose the right answer.

Early on, The Ear loved the sound and drama of Smetana’s tone poem “The Moldau.” And he loved some works by Johann Sebastian Bach that he heard in church. During piano lessons, there was some pieces by Chopin.

But then at about age 11, the Great Emotional Awakening to Music came in a way that reminded him of the famous madeleine memory episode in Marcel Proust’s novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” translated more accurately, if less poetically, these days as “In Search of Lost Time.”

Since he himself was a young and aspiring pianist, The Ear has realized, he no doubt first connected with the powerful recording by Arthur Rubinstein (below top) of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below bottom). That recording also featured Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Arthur Rubinstein

rachmaninoffyoung

The answer really isn’t a surprise — young people love the sweep of Romantic music. After all, on a lesser emotional level, Rachmaninoff had also moved The Ear with the famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor — the “Bells of Moscow” — which spurred The Ear into starting piano lessons when he heard it played live and right in front of him by a babysitter.

How intently he listened to the concerto, with a friend in the basement of his friend’s house, over and over again. How it moved him and never failed to move him – and still moves him today.

And then, maybe at 12 or 13, he rushed out and bought the Schirmer score tot he concerto when he was old enough and skilled enough to try to play some of it – the famous opening chords and excerpts from the beautiful and lyrical slow second movement. That experience of playing even excerpts also proved very emotional.

Now, there is also a practical purpose to this question. The answer just might give adults an idea about how to attract young children and new audiences to classical music.

Anyway, that’s what The Ear wants to know this weekend:

How old were you when you first connected EMOTIONALLY to classical music?

And who was the composer, the piece and the performer that you connected with emotionally?

The Ear hopes you have just as much poignant fun recollecting the answer as he did.

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

The Ear wants to ear.


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