The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Tell The Ear what music he should post on the Fourth of July?

July 3, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, the stock markets, banks and many businesses are closed in observance of the Fourth of July.

American Flag

TETRRF-00024113-001

But Saturday is the real Independence Day for the United States of America.

Now, The Ear has some ideas about what classical music to celebrate the event -– and the choices do NOT include the “1812 Overture” by Peter Tchaikovsky or the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that started during the French Revolution. Maybe one of the overtures by Ludwig van Beethoven or an aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Giuseppe Verdi would do. Try and see if you can convince me.

But the Ear thinks it would be much more patriotic to have something by an American composer – say Charles Ives (below top) or Aaron Copland (below bottom), William Schuman or Samuel Barber.

Charles Ives BIG

aaron copland

Or maybe Roy Harris or Leonard Bernstein, Joan Tower (below top) or Jennifer Higdon (below bottom) -– would be appropriate and a good choice.

Joan_Tower

Higdon-and-Beau-Candace DiCarlo

But here is your choice to play DJ.

Leave your choice -– with a YouTube link, if possible -– in the COMMENT section.

Then I will decide which choice is most appropriate and best, and post a YouTube video of the work on Saturday to mark the real Fourth of July, the real Independence Day.

Thanks for your help.

I know I have some very knowledgeable readers, so I am looking forward to the seeing and hearing their suggestions.

 

 


Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) gives an impressive display of how it continues to grow and develop.

June 24, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took performance photos. 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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

On Saturday night, in Mills Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Mikko Rankin Utevsky led his Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) in the first of this year’s two summer concerts. More than ever, it showed Utevsky in new degrees of bravery and enterprise.

MAYCO in MIlls June 2015 JWB

The program was organized around the idea of the Baroque concerto grosso, in various later transformations.

To begin, there was one of the “Morning, Noon, and Night” trilogy of Haydn’s symphonies, No. 6 in D, Le Matin. Haydn used the first of his symphonies composed for his new Esterhazy employer to show off the solo skills of his players.

The young MAYCO counterparts did themselves proud in both ensemble and solo playing, with particular flair displayed by first violinist Valerie Clare Sanders (below) in her virtuosic solos. And Utevsky’s care in have his string players totally avoid vibrato gave a good demonstration of 18th-century instrumental sound.

Valerie Sanders MCO 2015

The second work, by recent UW-Madison School of Music graduate in composition, Jonathan Posthuma (below), more explicitly recreated the old configuration in his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in E minor.

Jonathan Posthuma USE 2015

It presents indeed the proper concertino of two violins and cello, against a ripieno string orchestra. In place of the traditional continuo, however, Posthuma brought in four percussionists and a pianist. The percussionists are members of the local ensemble Clocks in Motion (below), currently making a name for itself as an avant-garde group.

Clocks in Motion Group Collage Spring 2015

The idea was fascinating, but in two of the three movements the results were confusing. In the first, the string orchestra was overwhelmed by floods of color worthy of a Busby Berkeley Hollywood spectacular, while the second movement was a long procession of pops and moans. All color and hardly any real musical ideas.

The third movement, on the other hand, was a lusty fugue, given forth at first by only the strings, with the percussionists then integrated into a quite well-balanced texture. This is stated as the first in what will be a full set of 12 concertos, to make up a typical Baroque dozen.

It will be interesting to see how such a project unfolds. But one must credit Utevsky (below) for giving this first venture its world premiere performance.

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

Another premiere followed the intermission. Utevsky was able to secure from the contemporary British composer Cecilia McDowall (below) the rights to the first American performance of her piece for chamber orchestra, Rain, Steam, and Speed, inspired by J.M.W. Turner’s powerful painting of the same title, with its subtitle of The Great Western Railway.

Less literally conceived than Arthur Honegger’s famous railroad evocation, Pacific 231, this piece is an effort to suggest the kaleidoscopic contents of the painting, in what might be called a British neo-Impressionist style. A challenging work for the orchestra, which they brought off very effectively.

Cecilia McDowall 2

Finally came not a concerto grosso, but a Romantic solo concerto, the one for Cello and Orchestra by Robert Schumann. Not as often heard as it should be, it is a handsome and enjoyable work.

The soloist was Parry Karp (below), of the UW-Madison School of Music faculty, of the Pro Arte Quartet, and of so much else. He approached the piece not in bravura pretentiousness but with a kind of affectionate warmth that suited it admirably, while also allowing Utevsky the chance to give his players experience in collegial ensemble interaction with a soloist.

MAYCO Karp CR JWB

What these gifted young players of high school and college ages are able to do is really amazing. Utevsky grows better and better in giving them — and himself — marvellous training opportunity. Watch for the second concert, with music by Ernest Bloch, George Frideric Handel and Haydn (the famed “Surprise” Symphony) with piano soloist Jason Kutz, at 7:30 pm. on Friday, August 21, location to be announced.

You can find more information here: http://www.mayco.org


Classical music Q&A: Shakespeare turns 450 today. Pianist Ryan McCullough talks about Beethoven’ problematic profundity and his Shakespearean sense of pacing and rhetoric. He will perform Beethoven’s titanic last three piano sonatas -– through which he sees a progression — this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

April 23, 2014
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NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.

shakespeare BW

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.

Ryan McCullough above keyboard

Farley 1877 piano

McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.

He is comfortable with repertoire ranging from classical works to electro-acoustic improvisation, and serves as Sage Fellow in Contemporary Performance Practice at Cornell University.

For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.

McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.

Ryan McCullough mug small

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?

By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.

My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.

I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.

ryan mccullough informal big

What is it about Beethoven and especially late Beethoven sonatas that appeals to you? Do you have a favorite among the last three sonatas?

There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.

But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.

Beethoven big

One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”

Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.

ryan mccullough playing 1

Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?

There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.

I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.

That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.

Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?

This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.

Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.

For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.

Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op.109

Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.

The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.

beethoven ms piano sonata op 110

Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.

Beethoven Title page Sonata Op. 111

The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op. 111

Is there something else you would like to add or say?

I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.

Leon Berliner

Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”

 

 

 

 

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Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.


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