The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019
3 Comments

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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/a-smaller-piano-for-bigger-artistry/article_38b80090-be0f-5050-9862-32c3c36c6930.html


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Classical music: Remembering Rudolf Serkin

January 18, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Among 20th-century pianists, Rudolf Serkin (below, in a photo by Yousuf Karsh) was a giant.

The Ear heard him live only twice.

Once was in New York City when Serkin played the “Emperor” Piano Concerto by Beethoven with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

The second time was years later in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, when he played an all-Beethoven program of sonatas during the Beethoven bicentennial.

Then there were his many recordings, no less wondrous and captivating. They set standards hard to equal, let alone surpass.

The Ear especially loved his Beethoven concertos and sonatas, but also his Mozart and Schubert, his Schumann and Brahms. One of The Ear’s favorite recordings was Serkin playing both the Piano Concerto and the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann. (You can hear the opening of the Piano Quintet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Serkin was a complete musician who excelled in solo music, chamber music and concertos.

Recently, The Ear saw the finest essay he has ever read about Serkin — who often seems overlooked or forgotten these days when the spotlight usually falls on his contemporaries Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz — in The New Yorker magazine.

Richard Brady, who usually writes about movies, captures the special magic that was Serkin’s.

In addition, the story offer 12 carefully chosen samples of Serkin’s playing, taken from solo recordings, concertos and chamber music, from older standard composers and classic works to more modern composers and works.

Here is a link:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2017-in-review/my-favorite-classical-music-release-of-2017

Did you ever hear Rudolf Serkin live?

What did you think?

Do you have a favorite work, live or recorded, played by Rudolf Serkin?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Performers should announce encores

March 25, 2016
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

All around The Ear, even very knowledgeable people were asking:

“What is that piece?”

“Who’s the composer?”

After a recent and superb performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director John DeMain, the renowned American pianist Emanuel Ax (below), who received a well-deserved standing ovation, played an encore.

And he played it beautifully.

Emanuel Ax portrait 2016

But he was negligent in one way.

He didn’t announce what the encore was.

So most of the audience was left wondering and guessing.

Now, The Ear knew the composer and piece because The Ear is an avid amateur pianist and knows the piano repertoire pretty well.

The encore in question was the Valse Oubliée No. 1 in F-sharp Major by Franz Liszt, which used to be more popular and more frequently heard than it is now. (You can hear it below played by Arthur Rubinstein in a YouTube video.)

On previous nights, Ax – who is a friendly, informed, articulate and talkative guy — also had apparently not announced the encores. But on Friday night it was the Waltz No. 2 in A minor by Frederic Chopin and on Saturday night is was the Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2, also by Chopin. Chopin is a composer who is a specialty of Ax, as you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom, which features his encore in an unusual setting pertaining to the Holocaust.

It’s a relatively small annoyance, but The Ear really thinks that performers ought to announce encores. Audiences have a right to know what they are about to hear or have just heard. It is just a matter of politeness and concert etiquette, of being audience-friendly.

Plus it is fun to hear the ordinary speaking voice of the artist, even if it is only just briefly to announce a piece of music, as you can hear below with Ax discussing the three concerts in Carnegie Hall that he did to celebrate the bicentennials of Chopin and Robert Schumann.

And it isn’t just a matter of big names or small names.

Emanuel Ax is hardly alone.

A partial list this season of performers who did NOT announce encores include violinist Benjamin Beilman, who played with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; violist Nobuko Imai, who performed with the Pro Arte Quartet; pianist Maurizio Pollini in a solo recital in Chicago; and a UW professor who played a work by Robert Schumann that even The Ear didn’t know.

Performing artists who DID announce encores — many of then by Johann Sebastian Bach — included pianist Joyce Yang at the Wisconsin Union Theater; violinist James Ehnes and cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, both with the Madison Symphony Orchestra; UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who played sick but nonetheless announced and commented humorously on his encore by Scott Joplin, “The Wall Street Rag”; and violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, who played recently with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

So it seems like there is no consistent standard that concert artists learn or adopt about handling encores. The Ear’s best guess is that it is just a personal habit the performers get used to over time.

But the Ear sure wishes that all performing artists would announce encores, program changes or additions.

It just makes the concert experience more fun and informative as well as less frustrating.

Is The Ear alone?

Do you prefer that artists announce or not announce their encores?

Or doesn’t it matter to you?

The Ear wants to hear.


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