The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 2018
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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 Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!

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Classical music: You must hear this – how Debussy provided a soft way to end a season

May 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems perfectly normal and natural that big groups like to close their season with a big ending.

So the Madison Symphony Orchestra closed this past season with the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek, which used a lot of brass and a large choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra went for an all-Beethoven program that featured the Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist John O’Conor, and the forceful, driven Fifth Symphony.

Yet there was something particularly soothing and reassuring about the way the Ancora String Quartet (below) closed its 17th season last Friday night. (Member, below from left, are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Benjamin Whitcomb, cello; and Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola.

The group opened with a welcome rarity: the fourth and final string quartet by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It proved a fine offering, especially noteworthy for the hymn-like slow movement that brought to mind the open harmonies of Aaron Copland.

But the concert ended ever so quietly and warmly with the only String Quartet, Op. 10, written by French composer Claude Debussy (below).

The poet T.S. Eliot said the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.

But this ending was neither bang nor whimper.

The Ear would call it a sigh, a long and sensual sound bath that left you leaving the performance less with admiration or wonder than with gratitude for the group and for the music.

Plus, it was all the more affecting for the way that violinist Wes Luke (below) clearly explained how the main themes of all movements grow out of one motif and cohere.

The Debussy string quartet, he explained, is one of the most performed and recorded of the entire string quartet repertory. Yet its sensuality always makes it seems so fresh and so French.

The highlight was, as always, the third movement, the slow movement. And as the spring season completes winding down and the summer seasons starts to pick up, here it is for your enjoyment in a YouTube video of the Juilliard String Quartet.

What did you think about the season-closing concerts this spring? Did you have a favorite?

What do you think of the Debussy string quartet?

If you know of a better slow movement from a string quartet, please leave a COMMENT and a link, if possible, to a YouTube performance.


Classical music: What we learn when we learn music. To prepare for two events next Saturday featuring students and amateurs, here is an insightful and informative PBS video

March 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week from today, two big events will take place.

One is the new and improved Bach Around the Clock 5 celebration. The FREE and PUBLIC event takes place at St. Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, 1833 Regent Street, and runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It features all kinds of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by not only professionals, but also by students and amateurs of many ages, from young children to adults. The idea is to mark his 333rd birthday.

For more information about BATC 5, which will be covered in more detail next week, go to this website, which also features a complete schedule of performers and repertoire.

https://bacharoundtheclock.wordpress.com/concert-schedule/

The other big event is the day-long series of Winterfest Concerts by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). It starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs through the evening. It features hundreds of students from dozens of middle schools and high schools in the larger area.

Here is a link to the information about the series of concerts, which will also be treated more at length this coming week:

https://www.wysomusic.org/events/concerts-recitals/

In both cases, the larger importance of music education will be in the spotlight.

That’s all the more reason to spend three minutes listening to this week’s “Brief But Spectacular” segment from the PBS Newshour in which an accomplished musician discuss the benefits of music education beyond having a career as a musician.

It may also whet your appetite to take in one or both of the events next Saturday.

Here is a link to the YouTube video of that impressive segment:

 


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
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ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel brought his love of classical music to “All Things Considered.” Here are 10 interviews and some background to mark his recent retirement

January 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio – and The Ear certainly is – you probably already know not to listen for veteran host Robert Siegel (below) on this afternoon’s broadcast.

Or any other ATC broadcast in the future.

That is because last Friday afternoon Siegel had his last sign-off. He retired after spending 41 years with NPR – the first 10 as a reporter, including as a London correspondent, and the last 31 as a host of the prize-winning afternoon news and features magazine “All Things Considered,” which, by the way, was created by Jack Mitchell, who later came to teach Mass Communications at the UW-Madison.

There will be much to miss about Siegel. His qualities included a calming voice, a ready laugh, fairness and objectivity, a convivial studio presence and sharp but respectful interviewing skills.

One of the things that The Ear hopes will survive Siegel’s departure is the much-needed public attention he brought to classical music, which he loved and which the other media today so often ignore.

The mark his retirement, NPR classical music blogger Tom Huizenga compiled a list of 10 important interviews that Siegel conducted over the years. Then he put links to those interviews on an NPR blog.

Huizenga also got Siegel to open up about the formative influences that sparked his love for classical music. They included his young love for the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven — the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, which you can hear played by Alfred Brendel in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Siegel went on to cover big stars like superstar soprano Renee Fleming; medium stars like violinist Gil Shaham (below), who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this month; and smaller and new stars like the iconoclast harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani.

He also covered a U.S. Army rifleman who performed a violin recital for Churchill and Truman, and the role that music by Beethoven played in Communist China.

And there are many, many more, for which classical music and we listeners owe a debt to Siegel.

Check it out and enjoy! Here is a link to that posting on the Deceptive Cadence blog:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/01/05/575906745/10-interviews-celebrating-robert-siegels-love-for-classical-music


Classical music: Farley’s underappreciated Salon Piano Series shines again with duo-pianists Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro

September 29, 2017
1 Comment

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

Roberto Plano appeared last season in a four-piano concert in the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos. This year, to open the 2017-18 season in the same series on last Sunday afternoon, the Boston-based pianist brought along his pianist wife, Paola Del Negro, for a duo program of utter fascination. (They are below.)

The first half of the program was devoted to music for piano-four hands, the duo alternating between primo and secondo parts. Robert Schumann’s six “Pictures From the East,” Op. 66, are examples of the composer’s important duo output.

Burgmein was the pen name of the covert composer better known as the influential music promoter and publisher Giulio Ricordi (below). His set of six duet pieces evoking characters from the Italian Renaissance Commedia dell’Arte tradition followed.

Then came two of the Hungarian Dances (No. 2 and 5) by Johannes Brahms in their original piano-duo form. (You can hear them play Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Ending the program’s first half was one of its biggest hits. After composing the great orchestral cycle of six patriotic scenes called “My Country,” Bedrich Smetana (below) made four-hand piano arrangements of each. Plano and Del Negro played that for the popular “Moldau.” This arrangement managed to capture a good deal of the orchestral original’s coloristic and dramatic effects, and was played with particular power.

The entire second half was devoted exclusively to a major work by Brahms, his Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. This work was created first as a string quintet, then later discarded. But the two-piano version (below) was superseded by Brahms’ transformation of its material into a Quintet for Piano and Strings (reckoned as plain Op. 34).

The Quintet — which, by the way will be performed by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet in the Salon Series next March — is, of course, one of the composer’s masterpieces. But the Two-Piano Sonata survives on its own merits. The parallel material is presented cogently, all of it redistributed in consistently keyboard terms, as against the mixed media of the Quintet.

The duo played it with the necessary Brahmsian burliness and power, and on Farley’s wonderful vintage pianos it sounded simply magnificent.

As an encore, the duo played a two-piano arrangement of an energetic tango piece by Astor Piazzolla, but then followed with another, in this case, an eight-hand piano trifle in which the Plano-Del Negro duo were joined as parents by their two young daughters (below). The audience could hardly resist that!

Plano and Del Negro are great discoveries. And once again, the Salon Piano Series has shown itself as one of the exciting, if too-little-known of Madison’s musical treasures.

For more information about the Salon Piano Series and its upcoming concerts, go to: http://salonpianoseries.org


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: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


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