The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet J’Nai Bridges who went from the dream of playing professional basketball to the reality of singing professional opera

January 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baseball season is done.

Football season is almost over.

Basketball season is here.

So it seems an appropriate time for The Ear to share a great story about sports and classical music that he recently saw on the PBS NewsHour.

It is also a good story about good luck to run today, on Friday the 13th, a date that is traditionally synonymous with bad luck.

The story concerns J’Nai Bridges (below) who started out wanting to be a professional basketball player.

jnai-bridges

That dream fell apart dramatically and suddenly — though she doesn’t reveal if it was an injury or some other cause.

But then good luck unexpectedly stepped in.

During her senior year in high school, she signed up for choir as an elective and her teacher immediately recognized her gift.

She started late, but she had the right attitude to stay open to new discoveries and new possibilities.

Turns out she possesses a world-class mezzo-soprano voice. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Bridges singing an aria from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet .)

And now she has gone on to a career in opera and is a rising star singing major roles in major opera houses around the world.

The Ear thinks that Bridges’ words reflect wisdom that others should share in.

For one, her moving story also highlights the importance of a liberal arts education, where you can try out many different subjects you have no idea about and see what you like and how you do. That gives students a chance to explore their untapped interests and potential.

It also runs contrary to some of the current politicians who want to reform secondary and higher education into a kind of trade school or vocational training ground for work and careers.

It also is a fine summary of the role that music plays both for the performer and for the audience.

Here is a link to the moving and informative story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports-gave-way-singing-rising-star/

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Classical music: Superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman turns 70. Plus the Willy Street Chamber Players perform Beethoven on WORT this morning.

September 3, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear’s friend Rich Samuels of WORT 89.9 FM writes: At 7:21 a.m. today, Thursday, Sept. 3, I’ll be broadcasting the Willy Street Chamber Players’ performance of the Beethoven String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor. It was recorded live on July 11 at Madison’s Immanuel Lutheran Church. Featured are Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari (violins), Micah Behr (viola) and Mark Bridges (cello).

By Jacob Stockinger

This past Monday, superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco) turned 70.

Itzhak Perlman by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Perlman, who possesses a sharp sense of humor,  likes to call himself a fiddler.

But he is so much more.

Perlman – who once made the cover of Time magazine and who used to fly in his private jet — has played a lot in Madison since the beginning of his concert career, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Madison Civic Center and the Overture Center.

The Ear thinks that his most memorable appearance in Madison was before his stratospheric concert fees made him either unaffordable or affordable only to the very well-heeled.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman photographed in 1984.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman photographed in 1984.

That was way back when WUT director Ralph Sandler booked the young Perlman to perform the complete solo violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach. Perlman performed them over two back-to-back nights at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The event proved to be one of the highlights of all the music that The Ear has ever heard in Madison. It was pretty incredible, watching Perlman sit there by himself on stage as he poured forth these fabulous works.

Itzhak Perlman playing closeup

The Ear likes Perlman’s playing a lot, especially from the early days when he won his share of Grammy Awards.

A great example are his recordings of the sonatas for violin and piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that he did with Daniel Barenboim and the sonatas for violin and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms that he did with Vladimir Ashkenazy. His recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini are also outstanding classics.

But to be honest, the later Perlman often disappointed me.

The Ear heard one performance in Madison where Perlman seemed bored by the music, as if he were phoning it in or going through the motions without much emotional engagement. (Below is Perlman in the 1960s.)

itzhak perlman ca 1960s BW

Then there was the time when he relied too much on his post-intermission shtick of pretending to choose and call out impromptu virtuosic encore-like pieces for the second half of his program while he also related to the audience the baseball scores from the World Series with his beloved home town team, the New York Yankees.

Then there was the time when many people went to hear him play the deeply emotional theme from “Schindler’s List” by John Willliams as an encore. He didn’t. (Listen to the YouTube video of it, with over 6 million hits, at the bottom.)

Nonetheless, Perlman remains a charismatic major talent who sure knows how to fill seats and please high-end audiences.

By some accounts, Perlman’s playing has declined in recent years. The Ear wonders if post-polio syndrome has anything to do with it, but can’t recall reading anything about that.

But whatever you think of his own playing, Perlman continues to devote himself to teaching young students with the program established by him and his wife Toby (below left) and to conduct as well as to perform solo recitals and concertos.

Toby and Itzhak Perlman Music Program Mission

This past week NPR or National Public Radio featured a look back at the many facets of Perlman’s long career. It included some great photos as well as some terrific audio samples.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/08/31/435224636/itzhak-perlman-charting-a-charismatic-career

What do you think of Itzhak Perlman and the various phases of his career?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The University of Wisconsin Choral Union says goodbye to Madison architect and longtime member Rick Levin with Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers.” A memorial for Levin will be held May 18.

May 3, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Gradually The Ear is catching up with reviews of local concerts.

April has been such a busy month for music, that I have given priority, as usual, to previews and advance features. They better serve not only the performers and presenters, but also the public.

But here is one review — really more of an appreciation than a review — that I wanted to include before it was too late.

A week today, last Saturday night, April 26, we said good-bye to Richard “Rick” Levin (below), a local architect, an avid baseball fan and a devoted chorister.

rick levin 2014

We said that good-bye through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Choral Union, in which Rick Levin (pronounced le-VINN) sang bass for 20 years or so.

But last year Rick was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer. He fought valiantly, with good humor and with hope, and many of us thought he would definitely make it.

Sadly, he did not.

He died on March 3.

So the UW Choral Union dedicated its one-night only performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a cappella Vespers of “All-Night Vigil,” Op. 37, based on the Russian Orthodox liturgy, to Levin, who had started rehearsing the work at the beginning of the semester.

Rick was Jewish, the work’s liturgy was Christian; but it was the music by the Russian neo-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), not the religion, that mattered.

Rachmaninoffold

Here is a link to some background, provided in a Q&A by the two leaders of the performance, conductors Beverly Taylor and Adam Kluck:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/classical-music-qa-co-conductors-beverly-taylor-and-adam-kluck-explain-the-appeal-of-sergei-rachmaninoffs-vespers-and-why-they-are-hard-to-perform-and-exotic-to-hear-f/

The performance proved a moving experience.

It is not a concert I really want to review artistically. I leave that task to this blog’s sometime guest critic John W. Barker, who usually writes for Isthmus.

Barker (below) knows the liturgical and religious aspects, the musical score, the Church Slavonic language and the dynamics of choral singing much better than I do. So I defer to Barker’s judgment and his review, which you can find a link to lower down on this posting.

John Barker

But I do feel capable of making some general observations.

This is the second time – the first was about 10 years ago — that conductor Beverly Taylor, the director of the choral department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and the assistant conductor to music director John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, had conducted the relatively neglected work and brought it to the Madison public. She also shared her conducting duties with graduate student conductor Adam Kluck.

The two switched on and off with great continuity, and both seemed in command of the score and the style.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Adam Kluck conducting

The chorus sang the difficult a cappella work, without accompaniment, with heart.

The singers changed their usually standing position on risers, and sat in a horse shoe-like semi-circle, which added to the intimacy. It almost felt like a comforting religious set-up, suggesting a surrounding circle of friends, the kind you might find in some church, synagogue or congregation.

Vespers seating UW Choral Union

Adding to the atmosphere of the work were some paintings of angels, mural-like or mosaic-like such as you might find in a Eastern Orthodox church

Vespers 1

Vespers angel 2

There were some red candles in golden church brass holders, forming an altar next to the conductor’s podium, where even an icon of the Madonna and Child had been placed on the stage.

Vespers podium and altar

Vespers stage icon5

In addition, the Vespers opened with Father Michael, of Madison’s Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, holding aloft a candle as an invocation.

Vespers Father Michael

The Choral Union did everything to create an atmosphere that would make this concert seem unusual, special and less concert-like, more intimate, if you will.

And it worked.

I sat in the audience with Rick’s wife and several friends.

We were all moved, especially, I thought, by the many verses about redemption and salvation. Unbeliever that I am, I ask: How else does one move forward from such loss of love and the grief that accompanies it?

The texture of the vocal sound enveloped us. The chorus seemed to sing with precise attacks and releases, and with good balances that shifted emphasis from section to section. Rachmaninoff’s rich sense of harmony and of melodic line showed through.

But a higher purpose than turning in an outstanding artistic performance was served, at least for some of us.

We all sat moved –- by the testimony of a great composer, unafraid of emotion, and by the many musicians paying tribute to one of their own. Such is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Art and, for The Ear, especially of music.

It was a fine evening of fine music that served a fine purpose. I think Rick Levin would have been very pleased.

Is there more to say? Not for me, not now.

Except perhaps that a celebration or memorial gathering for Rick Levin will be held in two weeks, on Sunday, May 18, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., in the shelter in Warner Park (below) on Madison’s far east side.

Warner Park shelter

If you feel close enough to Rick and his wife Judy to join in the words and music, the ballpark franks and food that Rick so loved from his childhood in Chicago, where he was a Chicago Cubs fan and regularly went to Wright Field (below), I am told you are welcome and even invited to attend. As for memorials, Rick Levin modestly asked only that contributions be made to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wrigley Field

Here is a link to Rick Levin’s obituary:

http://host.madison.com/news/local/obituaries/levin-richard-rick/article_9282977f-eb94-52f7-8e76-ded2b25864d2.html

And here is the link to the review of the UW Choral Union’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” done by retired UW-Madison history professor John W. Barker, that I referred to above:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42618&sid=1d5a87b16b85286f287599373df2f6be

Finally, here in its entirety is the beautiful and mysterious “Vespers” from a live performance in a popular YouTube video. Even just the opening will, I expect, move you:

 

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Classical music: To mark the World Series in Major League Baseball, two world-class symphonies post a YouTube smack down.

October 25, 2013
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, as a friend reminded me, it is here: Time for the World Series in Major League Baseball, of which Game 2 of a possible 7 will have been played by the time most of you read this.

Major League Baseball logo

And the two teams — the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals — that are vying for the world championship trophy (below) both come from cultured cities that boast world-class orchestras: The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

World Series Trophy

I am not really a fan of any baseball team — or of team sports in general —  but I do think baseball appeals to a lot of musicians. I know from personal experience that the superstar violinist  Itzhak Perlman (below) is a big fan who once announced the updated scores of a  world series games with the New York Yankees between pieces  and from the stage of the old Madison Civic Center.

Itzhak Perlman close

I wonder what the appeal of baseball to musicians is.

Maybe it has to do with the rhythm of the game.

For the member of a symphony orchestra or chamber music ensemble, maybe it is the team aspect.

For individuals, maybe what matters is the same kind of hand-eye coordination on which so much music-making on instruments depends – as does pocket pool, archery and target shooting, all of which I also like.

In fact, avid pianist that I am, I love watching baseball pitchers – like the great retired New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera (below)  —  but only at home on TV where I can see the pitches relatively close up and also check how the speed is measured and the contortions that batters have to go through to hit the ball.

Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Hit the ball.

Easy game, right?

Ha-ha.

baseball pitcher mariano rivera

Anyway here, at the bottom, is the World Series Symphony Smack Down is a link to a story — with some surprises — on The New York Times music blog and to the video (which has overtones of the gang warfare in Leonard Bernstein‘s “West Side Story”)  on YouTube.

Listen and tell me in the comments section why your think so many classical musicians like baseball?

And which city has the better symphony as well as baseball team? In other words, no matter who wins the series, I want to know who you think wins the Symphony Smack Down

The Ear wants to hear.

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/boston-and-st-louis-orchestra-musicians-play-up-the-world-series/?_r=0


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