The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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The Madison Opera launches its Digital Fall this Sunday afternoon and Sept. 27 with more to come through December. The cost is $50 per household

September 18, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Madison Opera about its Digital fall season, which will open with an artists’ panel discussion this Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, and then an original world-premiere production on Sept. 27, a week from this Sunday.

“Although the coronavirus pandemic has closed the Overture Center for the Arts this fall, Madison Opera is not going silent.

“We are creating a fall season that lasts from September through December. It includes both digital content and live performances at the Margaret C. Winston Madison Opera Center, our home in downtown Madison.

“All content will be available to subscribers for at least one month from the “live” date, so you can watch at your leisure, and as often as you wish.”

A Digital Fall subscription is $50 per household. It can be purchased on its own, or as part of a new subscription package. It can be purchased through the link at the bottom.

Here is how it will work: About 48 hours before each event, subscribers will receive an email with the private link to that event.  (You may need to check your spam folder).  If you have not received an email the day before an event, email info@madisonopera.org and we’ll send you the link directly.

The link remains active for one month, so if you cannot watch an event live – or want to re-watch it – you won’t miss out.

Do you miss operatic conversation? Join us online! Opera Up Close is a favorite event for Madison Opera subscribers, usually featuring a discussion of the upcoming opera from a historical context and with cast members.

For our Digital Fall, this conversation is reimagined via technology to discuss broader opera topics, featuring favorite Madison Opera company members, interviewed by Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill).

Opera Up Close Cocktail Hour Discussions take place on Sunday afternoons, 4– 5:30 p.m. Subscribers will have the opportunity to ask questions both in advance and during the talk.

UP CLOSE COCKTAIL HOUR DISCUSSION

This Sunday, Sept. 20, 4-5:30 p.m.

Many singers have debuted at Madison Opera (MO) early in their careers, before going on to sing around the world.

Featured in this discussion are: Kyle Ketelsen of Sun Prairie (below top in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee, MO debut 2000); Emily Fons (below middle, MO debut 2012); and Will Liverman (below bottom, MO debut 2015). Join us for a wide-ranging discussion about their careers, training paths, and much more.

WORLD PREMIERE OF  A SONG CYCLE

Jeni Houser and David Blalock, singers

Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Featuring the world premiere of “Keep Moving” by Madison composer and UW-Madison graduate Scott Gendel

Married singers Jeni Houser and David Blalock (below) have a long history with Madison Opera. Jeni was one of our first Studio Artists in 2012, and has returned many times, most recently as Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

David debuted in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (2014), and both artists sang at Opera in the Park 2019 (below). This past season, Jeni and David made (separate) Metropolitan Opera debuts, and were slated to sing the leads in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld ” in Madison last spring, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wisconsin residents will launch our Live from the Opera Center series in a joint recital, accompanied by principal pianist Scott Gendel (below).

Gendel is also an acclaimed composer, and the recital will feature the world premiere of his song cycle “Keep Moving,” set to poetry by Maggie Smith, which he is writing specifically for Jeni and David. (below, in a photo by David Scott, are all three are rehearsing in the Madison Opera’s Winston Center.)

Here is a link to the initial schedule of events, including a cooperative production of Jean Cocteau’s monologue opera “The Human Voice” with the Austin Opera in Texas, and biographies of various singers and participants.

More events will be added and announced in the coming months.

You will also a find a button to click on to subscribe to the Digital Fall: https://www.madisonopera.org/Fall2020


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UW-Madison will forego in-person concerts through the fall and go virtual. The FREE online concerts start TONIGHT, Monday, Sept. 14, at 6-8:30 p.m. with a graduate student recital

September 14, 2020
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PLEASE NOTE: The following post has been updated with more information since it first appeared.

By Jacob Stockinger

In ordinary times, the yearlong schedule would be set and concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music would be already well underway.

But these are not ordinary times – as you can tell from the silence about the UW season that usually presents some 300 events.

It has taken time, but the music school has finally worked out the basic approach to concerts during the pandemic. It will allow worldwide listening.

Audiences will NOT be present for any Mead Witter School of Music concerts or recitals this fall. Instead, a live stream of faculty recitals and all required student recitals, many of them in the new Hamel Music Center (below), will be available.

The portal to the live streaming, along with a scheduling clock and time countdown, can be found at: youtube.com/meadwitterschoolofmusic

The concert season starts tonight at 6:30 to 8 p.m. The performer is graduate student flutist Heidi Keener (below), who is giving her recital for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree. The recital was postponed from March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the school of music’s concert website you will find a biography and the program — just hover the computer’s cursor over the event: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/recital-heidi-keener-dma/.

The same information will also be on the YouTube website for the actual concert. Just click on MORE: https://youtu.be/gA6S3OXUKCc

Given so few calendar listings so far, clearly the format is still a work-in-progress.

For updated listings of other events, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/events/

The next events are slated for Oct. 2 with a student recital and another installment of the Pro Arte Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (below).

That other programs and dates are still missing is not surprising.

The entire UW-Madison from classes to sports, is in a state of flux about how to deal with the pandemic, with in-person classes paused through Sept. 25, and possibly longer.

Many questions about concerts remain as the process plays out.

All live-stream concerts will be free. But they will NOT be archived, so they will be taken down as soon as they end.

A donation link to the UW Foundation will be included to help cover the costs of the livestreaming and also other expenses.

Will choral concerts even take place, given that singing is especially risky because the singers can’t wear masks and social distancing is nearly impossible to provide with groups?

What about chamber music groups like the Pro Arte Quartet, the Wingra Wind Quintet and Wisconsin Brass Quintet? Many faculty members, who have to teach virtually and online right now, are no doubt concerned about the possible health risks of playing in groups.

And what about the excellent UW Symphony Orchestra, which The Ear considers a must-hear local orchestral ensemble? Those musicians too will have a hard time social distancing – unless individual safe performances at home or in a studio are edited and stitched together.

So far, though, we know that the University Opera will offer “I Wish It Were So,” an original revue of the American opera composer Marc Blitzstein on Oct. 23.

Here is a link to a story with more details about the production: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/classical-music-the-university-opera-announces-a-new-season-that-is-politically-and-socially-relevant-to-today-the-two-shows-are-a-virtual-revue-of-marc-blitzstein-and-a-live-operatic-version-of/

What do you think of the plans for the concert season?

Do you have any suggestions?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: As superstar Itzhak Perlman turns 75, a critic assesses his virtues and shortcomings in playing both the violin and his audiences

September 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Monday, Aug. 31, superstar violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Yael Malka of The New York Times) turned 75.

To celebrate, Sony Classical released a boxed set of 18 CDs (below) with many performances by Perlman – solo, chamber music and concertos – recorded over many years.

On the occasion of Perlman’s birthday, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times wrote a retrospective review of Perlman’s long career. (You can hear his most popular performance ever — with more than 6 million hits — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear finds the opinion piece both brave and truthful, pointing out Perlman’s mastery of the Romantic repertory but also criticizing his stodgy treatment of Vivaldi and other Baroque music that has benefitted from the period-instrument movement and historically informed performance practices

Yet the essay, which also touches on ups and down of Perlman’s career, always remains respectful and appreciative even when discussing Perlman’s shortcomings.

Offering many historical details and photos as well as sample videos, the critical assessment of Perlman seems perfectly timed.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it as much as he did. Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/arts/music/itzhak-perlman-violin.html

If you have heard Itzhak Perlman either on recordings or live – at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the old Civic Center or Overture Hall — let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The amateur, acclaimed and affordable Middleton Community Orchestra suspends its new season until further notice

September 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when many concert schedules are getting complicated due to virtual online concerts and other alternatives because of the coronavirus pandemic and Covid-19, the message couldn’t be simpler.

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below) has suspended its new season until further notice.

You can check for additional information by going to the website: https://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

There it says: “Concerts are postponed until further notice. Check back here and join our email list for updates to the season.”

It’s too bad.

The season took a lot of organizing. It was going to take place in alternative venues because the Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School, is undergoing renovations. (In the YouTube at the bottom, you can hear the MCO performing the Overture to Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger.”

It was also to feature new soloists including violinist David Perry of the UW-Madison Pro Arte String Quartet, and two guest conductors from Edgewood College and the UW-Whitewater.

It could also mean another cancellation of the new teenage concerto competition and concert as well as the cancellation of conductor Kyle Knox’s inaugural season as the MCO’s new music director (below).

Here is the largely amateur, well planned, unquestionably ambitious and very affordable season that was scheduled: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/03/30/classical-music-the-middleton-community-orchestra-announces-an-ambitious-2020-21-season-with-new-soloists-and-conductors-but-with-no-middleton-venue-for-the-season/

Do you have comments for the MCO?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This summer the Token Creek Festival goes online. The music starts TODAY at 4 p.m. Concerts run daily through Sept. 15 and remain up for this month

September 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival normally occurs in the final weeks of summer, just before Labor Day, in the welcoming rustic comfort of the beautifully converted barn (below) located on the rural farm property of composer John Harbison and violinist Rose Mary Harbison.

With its normal concert season canceled due to Covid-19, the festival is pleased to announce an alternative for the summer almost ended.

Slightly later than usual, “MUSIC FROM THE BARN” is a two-week virtual season, a retrospective of concert compilations from 30 years of performances.

The topical programs will be released daily over the period Sept. 1–15 at 4 p.m. (CDT), and will remain posted and available to “attendees” throughout the month. From anywhere in the world, you can revisit whole programs or individual pieces.

The goal of the series has been to achieve the broadest possible representation of repertoire and artists who have graced the Token Creek stage since the series began in 1989.

To festival-goers, it will come as no surprise that the virtual season emphasizes music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, vocal music, works by artistic director John Harbison and his colleagues, and, of course, jazz.

In addition to the welcoming beauty of the barn and festival grounds, with sparkling creek and abundant gardens and woods, and the convivial intermissions at every concert, one of the features most beloved by audiences is the concert introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and MIT professor John Harbison (below) that begins each program. Happily, these remain a feature of the virtual season as well.

Season Schedule

Tues., Sept. 1: Welcome and introduction from the artistic directors (below and  in the link to the YouTube video at the bottom)

TODAY, Wed., Sept. 2: Founders Recital

Thurs., Sept. 3: Haydn Piano Trios

Fri., Sept. 4: Bach I: Concertos

Sat., Sept. 5: A Vocal Recital (I)

Sun., Sept. 6: Beethoven

Mon., Sept. 7: Contemporaries

Tues., Sept. 8: Early Modernists

Wed., Sept. 9: A Vocal Recital (II): Schubert and Schumann

Thurs., Sept. 10: Jazz 2003-2019

Fri., Sept. 11: Neo-classicists: Pizzetti, Martinu, Stravinsky

Sat., Sept. 12: Schoenberg and His Circle

Sun., Sept. 13: Mozart

Tues., Sept. 14: John Harbison: Other Worlds

Wed., Sept. 15: Bach II: Preludes, Fugues, Arias, Sonatas

Programs will be posted on Token Creek’s YouTube Channel, accessible from the festival website (https://tokencreekfestival.org), which will also host concert details: works, artists, program notes and other information.

All concerts are FREE and open to the browsing public.

In addition to the virtual concert season, the Token Creek Festival is pleased to release two new CDs.

A Life in Concert (below) features music written for Rose Mary Harbison by John Harbison, and performances of diverse music by the two of them. It includes the world premiere recordings of Harbison’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Crane Sightings: Eclogue for Violin and Strings, inspired by frequent encounters with a pair of sandhill cranes at the Wisconsin farm.

Wicked Wit, Ingenious Imagination (below) offers four piano trios by Haydn, a beloved genre the festival has been surveying regularly since 2000.  CDs will be available at the festival website by mid-September.

For more information, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org

https://tokencreekfestival.org/2020-virtual-season/welcome/#


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Classical music: Here is how the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) plan to continue lessons and performances this fall despite the coronavirus pandemic

August 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has just received the following updates from an email newsletter about the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Over more than 50 years, WYSO has served tens of thousands of middle school and high school students in southcentral Wisconsin and northern Illinois. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the WYSO Youth Orchestra play a virtual performance from the past season of the famous finale from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture.)

After many weeks of planning, and in consultation with Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) and the McFarland School District, WYSO is excited to announce a fall semester plan that will mark a safe return to in-person music-making—and our first season at the McFarland Performing Arts Center (below) https://www.wysomusic.org/the-wyso-weekly-tune-up-april-17-2020-wysos-new-home/

We had a brief delay last Friday when PHMDC released Emergency Statement #9 delaying in-person start dates for all schools in Dane County. We checked in with the Public Health agency and they re-affirmed that WYSO is not a school —and the 15 students maximum-sized groups outlined in this plan are absolutely perfect. It is time to set up the tents!

The WYSO season will begin on the weekend of Sept. 5, when the winds and brass students from all three full orchestras (Youth, Philharmonia and Concert) will begin their fall rehearsals outside under two enormous tents in the McFarland High School parking lot (below). The 60 winds and brass students will be divided into approximately nine or 10 cohorts, who will meet in two-hour blocks on Saturdays and Sundays.

With a single cohort of masked and socially distanced students spread out within the 40′ x 60′ tent, with “bell covers and bags” for their instruments, the season will not look like any previous WYSO Fall.

If you’ve not been involved in the new science of aerosol transmission, this whole scenario might seem very curious. The reasoning is simple: The winds and brass instruments have been singled out as more problematic since you have to blow into them to make music. The blowing releases more “aerosols,” the tiny droplets that can transmit the coronavirus.

However, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have recently released the first results from a five-month study and have found that the following actions bring down the transmission risk considerably:

  1. Social distancing 9 to 15 feet apart.
  2. Adding bell covers and bags (below) for the instruments (essentially the instruments have to wear masks as well as the students).
  3. Playing outside, which reduces risks due to the increased air circulation.

Because we are in Wisconsin, the “outdoor” location shortens the season for the winds and brass players so by beginning the season on Sept. 5 and ending on the weekend of Oct. 24, they can just squeeze in an 8-week cycle.

Meanwhile, the WYSO string and percussion players, approximately 300 in number and representing all five orchestras, will begin their fall season indoors on Oct. 17, after McFarland moves to a hybrid model for the school year.

The string players will be divided into 15-student cohorts by orchestra, with a wonderful mix of violins, violas, cellos and basses in each group, and with the groups spread throughout one wing of the high school in large music rooms and atriums.

The percussionists have been scheduled into the new Black Box Theater and they are excited to begin playing on the brand new marimbas and timpani so recently acquired by WYSO through a gift from an incredibly generous anonymous donor.

Everything has been carefully scheduled so that at any given time there will not be more than 125 students, conductors and staff in the building.

Start and end times have been staggered. The large beautiful spaces at McFarland will easily hold the socially distanced and mask-wearing players. And the orchestras will again be scheduled into Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons. Even the WYSO Chamber Music Program (below) has been scheduled into the intricate puzzle.

The rest of this exciting fall story has to do with adding incredibly talented professional musicians to lead some of the cohorts and the amazing repertoire available for groups of 15 musicians, whether they play winds, brass, strings or percussion.

From Mozart’s “Gran Partita” to Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 2 and 6; from Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite” to Bartok’s Divertimento, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings — there is almost an “embarrassment of riches” of exciting, seldom-played repertoire, to quote WYSO Music Director Kyle Knox (below). And this fall, that repertoire will be right in WYSO’s wheelhouse.

WYSO will video-capture this year’s Fall Concerts of students playing in the beautiful McFarland Performing Arts Center to 800 empty seats and let you know the exact Fall Concert dates as we get closer. Click here for additional information.

While WYSO is incredibly excited about our in-person plan for rehearsals and playing music together, we have also drawn up two alternate plans, and know that not everyone will be able to participate in-person.

WYSO Registration is underway, and we are asking those who cannot participate in the McFarland experience to let us know their needs through the registration process, so that we can create the best virtual experience possible for those involved. Tuition payment is not due at registration.

To register, go to: https://www.wysomusic.org/members/wyso-registration-form/

 


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Classical music: Grace Presents HD offers a free virtual online concert by the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players this Saturday at noon

August 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Cellist and UW-Madison graduate student James Waldo has sent the following announcement about a FREE virtual online concert by Grace Presents, which he coordinates.

The hi-def, one-hour concert by the critically acclaimed and popular Willy Street Chamber Players (below) is at noon (CDT) this Saturday, Aug. 22.

Says Waldo:

“This is a pre-recorded event, and as such, I had the singular pleasure of sitting in the room while these fantastic musicians recorded their program. This event is not to be missed!

“Grace Presents HD brings you free, crystal-clear performances by local Madison musicians in the nave of historical Grace Episcopal Church – located downtown on the Capitol Square — from the comfort and safety of your own home.

“The Willy Street Chamber Players will have a video premiere that will be available on the Grace Presents YouTube channel on this Saturday, Aug. 22 at noon CDT. (This virtual concert is available for a limited time only!)

You can see and hear a preview of the concert in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Artists in the Willy Street Chamber Players are: Paran Amirinazari, artistic director, violin and viola; Eleanor Bartsch, violin and viola; Mark Bridges, cello; and Lindsay Crabb, cello, five-string cello.

You can find more information about the chamber music ensemble, including a link to a post in which The Ear named them as Musicians of the Year for 2016, at: http://willystreetchamberplayers.org

As is typical for The Willys, the program reflects diversity and includes both classical masters and contemporary composers:

Schubert: String trio in B-flat major, D. 47

Tania León (below) – Four Pieces for Solo Cello: II. Prayer

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Passacaglia

George Walker (below) – “Bleu”

J.S. Bach – Solo Cello Suite No. 6 in D major: I. Prelude and IV. Sarabande

Kimo Williams (below): “Quiet Shadows”

Beethoven: String Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1 / I. Adagio-Allegro

“We will be hosting a Zoom meet-and-greet with our guest artists following the performance. If you’d like to attend this virtual gathering, please RSVP to Grace Presents Program Coordinator James Waldo (gracepresents@gmail.com) for more information.

“Here is biographical background: The Willy Street Chamber Players (WSCP) are dedicated to creating community through classical music. Established in 2015, the group has become a fixture of the Willy Street neighborhood’s vibrant cultural scene.

“Recently awarded a gold medal in Madison Magazine’s prestigious “Best of Madison” reader poll, WSCP has received numerous accolades for its accessible and exciting performances, intelligent and fun programming, and community partnerships.

“Today, the group consists of four core members. Led by Artistic Director and violinist Paran Amirinazari, each player brings a fresh, imaginative take to classical music.

WSCP convenes each July – this summer’s concerts were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — to present their popular summer concert series at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below) on Spaight Street. For these programs, the group has collaborated with many well-known guest artists from Madison and beyond.

“In addition, WSCP presents an array of events throughout the year including the admission-free Community Connect series that aims to bring classical music to inclusive spaces.

“WSCP has also performed at many other popular Madison venues including Marquette Waterfront Fest; Summer Serenades at Memorial Union Terrace; the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin compound in Spring Green; the Madison New Music Festival; and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA).”

OTHER DETAILS

Video recording and editing has been done by: https://www.microtonemedia.com/

Audio engineering has been done by Bruce Kasprzyk.

Grace Presents is supported in part by generous project grants from Dane Arts, the Madison Arts Commission, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) and the Grace Episcopal Development Fund Trust as well as individual gifts and in-kind support.

 


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
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PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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