The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players complete their cycle of Beethoven sonatas for strings with impressive beauty and sensitivity

October 10, 2017
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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. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

In another distressingly overcrowded weekend, hard choices had to be made about which event to attend. I picked the performance by the Mosaic Chamber Players last Saturday night at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

For the past four years, this group has pursued a “complete” survey of Beethoven’s sonatas for strings and piano. Since he composed 10 for violin and piano plus five for cello and piano, it was easy to organize them into five concerts, each with two violin sonatas and one for cello. In addition, it was possible in many programs to draw on all three periods of Beethoven’s output.

This year’s concert was thus the fifth and the last in the series, climaxing a really impressive achievement for artistic director and guiding spirit Jess Salek and his colleagues.

As pianist in all three of the works presented, Salek (below) provided more than accompaniment, since the role of the piano was generally put on terms of equal partnership, sometimes even of relative superiority. He played bravely, justly showing palpable pride in the total achievement.

Laura Burns (below), who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet, was the violinist in the early Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, No. 2.

This happens to be the first of these Beethoven sonatas that I came to know and love in my youth, via an old Jascha Heifetz recording, so it had particular reverberations for me. To its wit and sprightliness Burns brought an added warmth of sound and spirit.

The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2, was the last one Beethoven composed for this medium, and one of two that dates from the composer’s late period. A great deal of very serious thinking went into it, with a slow movement particularly notable for its spiritual depth. Cellist Kyle Price (below) delivered it with genuine feeling and with great strength of tone.

Also Beethoven’s last work for its medium, the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, comes from late in the composer’s so-called middle period. It is a work of almost kaleidoscopic variety, with frequent changes of mood and character.

Its core is another slow movement of amazingly personal eloquence and breath-taking beauty. And the theme-and-variations movement finale seems to have everything (almost) in it but the kitchen sink. (You can hear Wes Luke and Jess Salek performing another theme-and-variations movement from a different Beethoven violin sonata in the cycle, Op. 30, No. 1, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was clear that violinist Wes Luke (below), who is also the first violinist of the Ancora String Quartet, was having a whale of a good time playing it, relishing almost every note.

Luke’s printed program notes were particularly excellent, and included notice that the group’s spring concert will juxtapose piano trios of Beethoven and Brahms.

The Mosaic Chamber Players do not receive a great deal of publicity, but their concerts offer some of the most lovely and thought-provoking chamber music repertoire to be found, even in a town so full of wonderful music-making as ours.


Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble open their new seasons this Saturday night

October 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s another busy week at the start of the new concert season, and two more groups are giving opening concerts this Saturday night:

MOSAIC CHAMBER PLAYERS

On this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, the Mosaic Chamber Players will open their new season.

The Madison-based group will perform an all-Beethoven program and complete its cycle of all the string sonatas. The program is the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2; the Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter in the YouTube video below); and the Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2.

The performers are Laura Burns (below top) and Wes Luke (below second), violins; Kyle Price, cello (below third); and Jess Salek, piano (below bottom).

Tickets are $15 for the public; $10 for seniors; and $5 for students. Check or cash only.

Adds artistic director Jess Salek: “We have been opening our seasons with the Beethoven string sonatas for five years now, so this really exciting for us!”

WISCONSIN BAROQUE ENSEMBLE

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble (below) will give a concert of varied baroque vocal and instrumental chamber music on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street.

Members of the WBE are Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Brett Lipshutz, traverse flute; Eric Miller, viola da gamba; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Monica Steger, traverse flute and harpsichord; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

Tickets at the door only are $20, $10 for students.

For more information, got to www.wisconsinbaroque.org

A reception will be held after the concert at 2422 Kendall Ave, second floor

The program features:

Johann Philipp Kernberger – Sonata in C major for traverso and basso continuo

D’India – “Piangono al pianger mio” (I Shed Tears, As The Wild Animals Do)

Cipriano de Rore – “Ancor che col partire” (Although When I Part From You), arranged for viola da gamba by Riccardo Rognini

Francesca Caccini – “Io Veggio i Campi Verdeggiar Fecondi” (I See the Fertile Fields Turn Green); “Dov’io Credea de Mie Speranze” (Where I Thought My Hopes Were Real)

Georg Philipp Telemann (below) – Trio Sonata for alto recorder, violin and basso continuo TWV 42:d10 (heard in the YouTube video below)

INTERMISSION

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair – duet for two traversi without bass

Francesco Mancini – Sonata No. 1 in D Minor for recorder and basso continuo

Georg Friedrich Handel – “Süsse Stille” (Sweet Silence)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (below) – La Pantomime (The Pantomime), from Pièces de clavecin, 4th concert; “Les Surprises de l’Amour” (Love’s Surprises), selected movement from Act II, transcribed by Ludwig Christian Hesse


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet excels in music by Haydn, Dvorak and especially Ravel as it impressively opens its new season in two acoustically different venues

October 3, 2017
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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. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Ancora String Quartet offered a nicely balanced program last Saturday night to open its new season at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, known as the “Sunrise” quartet. A work of the composer’s maturity, published in 1799, it shows him straining the boundaries of Austrian Classicism and pushing close to the proto-Romanticism of his student, Beethoven.

Each work in the program was preceded by a spoken introduction, given by a member of the ensemble, and for the Haydn quartet violist Marika Fischer Hoyt did the honors.

Then came three (Nos. 2, 5 and 10) of the 12 arrangements for quartet that Antonin Dvorak made from his song cycle, Cypresses. The spoken introduction in this case was given by first violinist Wes Luke (below), who not only spoke but also sensibly read aloud — in English translation — the words of each song. Dvorak’s deeply personal lyric expression came through the more meaningfully for that.

Finally came the Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel. For this, cellist Benjamin Whitcomb (below) gave a cogent spoken introduction. Ravel’s work matches Debussy’s string quartet — to be played later this season — as a chamber music contribution to so-called French “Impressionism.” But it also is one of the last great demonstrations of how initially stated themes can be quoted or re-introduced in new characters and colors throughout all the movements.

This program had special value for me because it was one I was able to hear twice on two successive evenings. I particularly profited from a double hearing of the Ravel, which allowed me to listen how the various themes popped out here and there in ever-varied differences. (You can hear the String Quartet by Ravel in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The performances each time were beautifully precise and atmospheric, but the particular points of contrast involved instead a factor too often forgotten in evaluating a concert: the acoustic divergences of different performing sites.

The previous Friday evening, I heard the program in the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center. Its acoustics are tight and bright, bringing great clarity and immediacy to the playing.

By comparison, the sound at St. Andrew’s is bigger, richer and more reverberant, although differing in relation to how far up front or way back you sit—another variable to consider.

I spoke with the players about this, and it is clear that they must, and do, take account of such acoustic differences as they move from one performing site to another. Careful concert-goers, too, should always consider these differences as they listen.

A final thought: The Ancora String Quartet, which also includes Robin Ryan as second violin, has always played with splendid expertise and stylistic sense. But it seems clear to me by now that the settling in of Wes Luke as the new first violinist has brought added vigor and assertiveness to the group’s playing, making it an even more important ensemble than ever before in Madison’s musical life.

The concert will be repeated tonight in Janesville at 7:30 p.m. in the Kilmark Theatre of the UW-Rock County at 2909 Kellogg Avenue. The performance is FREE and OPEN to the public.

For more information about the Ancora String Quartet and its new season, go to the website: http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings the debut of a new conducting professor with the UW Symphony Orchestra plus a major voice recital, a string quintet and two master classes.

October 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week for classical music in Madison, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Certainly the standout event is the debut of Chad Hutchinson (below). He is the new conducting teacher and succeeds James Smith.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra will take place on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The intriguing program features the Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner (you can hear George Solti perform it with the Vienna Philharmonic the YouTube video at the bottom); the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy; the “Mothership,” with electronics, by the American composer Mason Bates; and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that was recently voted the best symphony ever written by more than a hundred conductors.

Here is a link to more about Hutchinson’s impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/chad-hutchinson/

And here is a schedule of other events at the UW:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall conductor Scott Teeple leads the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) in its FREE season opener featuring music by Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland, Roger Zare and Jennifer Higdon. Also featured is guest oboist, faculty member Aaron Hill (below bottom).

Here is a link to program notes:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble/

Also at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Morphy Recital Hall, the internationally renowned guest violist Nobuko Imai (below), from Japan, will give a free public master class in strings and chamber music.

THURSDAY

At noon in Mills Hall, guest violist Nobuko Imai (see above) will perform a FREE one-hour lunchtime concert with the Pro Arte Quartet, which has San Francisco cellist guest Jean-Michel Fonteneau substituting for the quartet’s usual cellist, Parry Karp, who is sidelined temporarily with a finger injury.

The ensemble will perform just one work: a driving and glorious masterpiece, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms.

At 1 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Demondrae Thurman (below), a UW alumnus who is distinguished for playing the euphonium, will give a free public master class in brass.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/master-class-demondrae-thurman-euphonium/

NOTE: The 3:30 master class for singers by Melanie Helton has been CANCELLED. The UW hopes to reschedule it for late fall or spring.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a  photo by Michael R. Anderson) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below middle) will give a FREE concert of three songs cycles by Robert Schumann (the famed “Liederkreis); Maurice Ravel; and UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel (below bottom).

For the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-paul-rowe-voice-martha-fischer-piano-2/

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform under its new conductor Chad Hutchinson. See above.

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. the afternoon concerts by Lyle Anderson at the UW Carillon (below) on Observatory Drive will resume.

Here is a link with a schedule and more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/carillon-concert/2017-10-08/


Classical music: This weekend brings two major piano recitals – by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor and Italian duo-pianists Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro – plus a public piano master class

September 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you have already seen from this week’s postings so far, this coming weekend is loaded with conflicting concerts.

One result is that events that would normally receive separate postings must be combined.

Such is the case today, with previews of two very appealing piano concerts plus a master class.

SATURDAY

This Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the celebrated UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below), a bronze medalist in the Van Cliburn Competition, will perform a terrifically well-planned recital that is a classic case of contrast-and-compare, and reveals how music begets more music.

Here are some notes from the School of Music about the program:

“Christopher Taylor’s conceptual program features Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, arranged by Franz Liszt.

Over 175 years later, New York City-based composer John Corigliano would use Beethoven’s Seventh to inspire his Fantasia on an Ostinato. (You can hear the famous slow movement with the “ostinato,” or continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm, that inspires it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

On the second half, Taylor will feature two takes on the title “Moments Musicaux” or Musical Moments: first, he will play Franz Schubert’s version, published in the last year of his life (1828); then he’ll perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s version from the start of his career.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for non-School of Music students and children. Ticket information is here.

SATURDAY and SUNDAY

On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., as part of the Salon Piano Series, the Italian husband-and-wife piano duo of Roberto Plano and Paola Del Negro (below) will hold a FREE and PUBLIC master class with local students at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near the West Towne Mall.

Then on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., in the main showroom at Farley’s, the duo will perform.

The program features: “Pictures from the East” (Bilder aus Osten), Op. 66, by Robert Schumann; Burgmein’s (aka Ricordi) Suite “Les amoureux de Colombine”; Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1-5; “The Moldau” by Bedrich Smetana; and Brahms’ Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b, which later became his famous Piano Quintet.

Tickets are $45 for the public and $10 for full-time students.

For more information about tickets and biographies of the performers, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

You can also call (608) 271-2626.


Classical music: Who are the best pianists of all time? And which ones do you think were left off the list by Classic FM?

September 16, 2017
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The British radio station and website Classic FM recently published its list of the 25 greatest pianists of all time.

Plus, the website also included samples of the playing where possible.

It is an impressive list, if pretty predictable — and heavily weighted towards modern or contemporary pianists. You might expect that a list of “all-time greats” would have more historical figures — and more women as well as more non-Western Europeans and non-Americans, especially Asians these days.

Here is a link:

http://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/piano/best-pianists-ever/

So The Ear started what turned out to be a long list of others who should at least be considered and maybe even included.

Here, then, is the question for this weekend: What do you think of the list? Which pianists do not belong on the list? And which are your favorite pianists who are not included in the compilation?

Leave your candidate or candidates in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube link of a favorite performance, wherever possible.

Happy listening!


Classical music: What are the best classical music pieces for beginners to listen to? And why?

September 9, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear needs your help.

Recently a good friend said: “I don’t listen to or know much about classical music, but I wish I did. You know a lot. What would be good pieces for me to begin with?”

I said I would think about it.

So many composers and works come to mind.

But it is so subjective.

So The Ear thought: Why not turn to readers?

Why not ask readers what pieces got them started on listening to classical music?

And what pieces they would recommend to others?

There are of course some proven and popular standards such as the Symphony No. 5 and the  Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” by Beethoven; the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky (played and recorded by Van Cliburn in a way that influenced a whole generation); and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff.

But there is so much more to choose from, as you can tell from the YouTube video at the bottom.

String music, wind music and brass music.

Big pieces and small pieces.

Solo music, chamber music and orchestral music.

Vocal music and choral music, including operas.

So what would you tell my friend?

Leave a suggestion and why you chose it in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The friend is waiting.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Amy Beach turns 150. Read about the woman and her music

September 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Amy Beach (1867-1944, below) was a pioneering American composer who fought against sexism in her lifetime and who benefitted greatly from the rediscovery of women artists during the feminist revival of the 1970s and 1980s.

But here is a link to the most comprehensive story The Ear has yet read about Beach and her music, which is still neglected and not getting the attention it deserves, especially the larger and more ambitious works. (You can find many on YouTube and other streaming services.)

The story marked the 150th anniversary of her birth and appeared last Sunday in The New York Times.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/music/amy-beach-women-american-composer.html

And here, introduced and played by Rachel Barton Pine in a YouTube video, is one of her last and more minor works: a lovely Romance for violin and piano. It remains one of The Ear’s favorites.


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