The Well-Tempered Ear

Is a lot of ‘woke’ music inferior to the music it replaces?

January 21, 2023
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a widespread attempt to explore historically ignored music and overlooked, marginalized composers interfering with the public hearing greater, more important and more beautiful music?

It is a problematic but timely question or issue, especially during an era of political correctness and in our current culture wars.

To be sure, you can hear some memorable music that has unjustifiably been excluded from the so-called canon. The discovery of Florence Price (below) is a prime example. The same can be said for Clara Schumann.

It does seem that a lot of the newly rediscovered pieces and composers — Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Asian, women, LGBT — deserve an initial hearing, if only out of curiosity and to correct the historical record.

But after being heard for the first time, many of them seem second- or third-rate. They deserve to be shelved for another few decades in favor of restoring greater music and greater composers to the active performing repertory. 

To The Ear, for example, the symphonies by Michael Haydn always sound inferior to those of his famous older brother Joseph. And it doesn’t matter what critics and audiences of the day said, history its often — if not always — the better judge. The symphonies and violin concertos of the impressive and influential Joseph de Boulogne (Chevalier de Saint-Georges, below) are simply not as artistically interesting or engaging as those by his contemporary Mozart.

Anyway, whatever you think, The Ear came across an essay on the internet by George Leef that was published in The National Review — the iconic conservative political magazine founded by William Buckley. It contains background about current nationwide programming guidelines and organizations that you might not know. 

It is an interesting point of view. It often goes over the top and  clearly overstates the case against “woke” repertory by accusing those who support it of being “enemies of classical music” rather than sincere and well-intentioned progressive advocates of artistic justice.

But it deserves a serious reading and a serious answer to the provocative question of balancing the great and the less great. Here is a link:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nationalreview.com%2Fcorner%2Fthe-enemies-of-classical-music-open-a-new-front%2F&data=05%7C01%7C%7Cdc78db9851e24c937f3208dafa28c130%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638097350187750246%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=SmHoEA2rkQ53xI6RZvi8o65zJ99IcjYFqXrbJq3DV18%3D&reserved=0

Read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Then please tell The Ear and other readers what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


One piano lesson made all the difference

January 15, 2023
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By Jacob Stockinger

Not long ago, NPR and Wisconsin Public Radio featured a moving story from the website “Hidden Brain” and its series of profile called “My Unsung Hero.”

It told the simple story of a single piano lesson — and how just one short sentence at this piano lesson proved both ordinary and momentous – and made all the difference, changing the course of a young boy’s life.

The Ear found it inspiring. And it provoked some of his own memories of important music lessons and music teachers as well as other subjects and other influential teachers in school.

He hopes you will also like it and share it, perhaps with a friend who had a similar experience or with a special teacher who influenced you and made an important difference in your life.

Here is a link:

https://www.npr.org/2022/12/05/1140759435/a-few-words-of-encouragement-from-his-music-teacher-changed-karl-goldsteins-life

Did you ever have a similar experience with a music teacher and music lesson?

Or find an “unsung hero” in music or another field of education who made a big difference? 

Please tell us about it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Gramophone Magazine names the Best Classical Recordings of 2022 by each month

January 9, 2023
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By Jacob Stockinger

Maybe you have a holiday gift card to use.

Or maybe you have some leisure time to explore new recordings for your pleasure.

You’re in luck.

Various media have recently named the Best Classical Recordings of 2022. Whether you stream them or use compact discs or listen to vinyl, over the next week or two The Ear will feature some of them.

One of the most prestigious and well respected lists is provided by the British publication and website, Gramophone Magazine (below).

The link below is just to the December 2022 choices. But in it you can find links by the month to other outstanding selections.

Like many other links now, you can also find links to complete reviews of individual albums, and can even listen to excerpts from the named performances.

Also like many international lists, this one often reflects a not-so-subtle bias — usual towards the artists in the home nation where the organization is based. So look for a lot of British performers and composers.

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.gramophone.co.uk%2Ffeatures%2Farticle%2Feditor-s-choice-december-2022-the-best-new-classical-recordings&data=05%7C01%7C%7C9d54288e7aa14aee84e008dad6cf495a%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638058483012574509%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=jQjPYfVgug0bP8RNt8LCpJaWifR5remsfdwHP8zwAW8%3D&reserved=0

Still, you can find many outstanding choices to spend those gift cards on. Or just to explore for pleasure whenever you have the time and desire.

Here is one example.

When he first heard it, The Ear was fascinated by Paul Wee’s outstanding and astounding performance of the virtuosic solo piano transcription by the 19th-century French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan of Mozart’s famously sublime and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 22 in D minor, K. 466 (below in a photo of the album cover and in a YouTube video).

Very handy if you don’t have access to an orchestra! Plus you hear the composition in a new and insightful way — as often happens with transcriptions.

What do you think?

Do you have a favorite new recording from 2022?

The Ear wants to hear.


Ailing superstar maestro and pianist Daniel Barenboim, 80, quits longtime German opera post

January 7, 2023
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday — Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 — superstar maestro and pianist Daniel Barenboim, 80, resigned his longtime post of over 30 years as director of the Berlin State Opera.

Barenboim (below) cited ill health — specifically a severe inflammation of blood vessels — as the reason for his resignation.

Local residents might recall his long tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where many of them probably heard him conduct and perhaps even perform as a concert pianist.

Here is a long biographical entry in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Barenboim

Below are links to two news articles about Barenboim’s decision. 

In them you can read a lot of details about: his philosophy of interpretation; his childhood as a Jewish child prodigy in Argentina; his training and early career as both pianist and conductor; his performances with marriage to British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died young; his love of German music and his role in Germany’s reunification; his controversial criticism of how Israel treats Palestinians; and the orchestra and music school he co-founded with the Palestinian activist and world-famous literary scholar Edward Said.

Here is a story from British newspaper The Guardian:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theguardian.com%2Fmusic%2F2023%2Fjan%2F06%2Fdaniel-barenboim-step-down-berlin-state-opera-poor-health&data=05%7C01%7C%7C66c77484055c4288326508daf02e850f%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638086379832875661%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=pGEA0TsdHFxtYwzzqeugIDeFUh6zR5FNejjokYL5cZY%3D&reserved=0

And here is the story from the German broadcasting network and media conglomerate Deutsche Welle:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dw.com%2Fen%2Fconductor-daniel-barenboim-resigns-as-berlin-state-opera-director-over-ill-health%2Fa-63760683&data=05%7C01%7C%7Ceeb75c8f244542d0496e08daf02ed28b%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0e%7C638086381129033294%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=qmTwyPzkWpJKfAT4ohHJVWWnISE%2BxZS%2FxuM7hrC09zQ%3D&reserved=0

Finally, here is a recent compilation video from the outstanding arts website and streaming service medici.tv to celebrate Barenboim’s recent 80th birthday. It is called “80 Minutes with the Barenboim” and it features many other classical luminaries such as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Pierre Boulez who have been vital to his life and global career.

Do you know any of Barenboim’s many recordings?

Do you have a favorite recording to recommend?

Did you ever hear Barenboim in person conduct or play the piano?

What did you think of him? Of his conducting or playing?

The Ear wants to hear.


Here are classical musicians who died in 2022

December 31, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

2022 saw the death of many classical musicians.

A few of the most prominent names have been featured in other year-end lists.

But as far The Ear can tell, the most comprehensive and most international list has been posted on website of The Violin Channel, which is located in New York City.

Kudos to The Violin Channel! The list is terrifically researched, organized and executed. If you want to know more and read a fuller obituary, just click on the name in red and a link will take you to it. Here it is:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Ftheviolinchannel.com%2Fin-memoriam-remembering-the-remarkable-musicians-we-lost-in-2022%2F&data=05%7C01%7C%7C84e7cdcc27d3458e94f808dae4f027bf%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638074017362646897%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=4oWM3jzNFYCimU5i6%2FTW3b8MSSebSXZNEsGWPihl5Uc%3D&reserved=0

Do you know of other names — including local names — that should be included?

Leave them in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

And here is a YouTube video performance of the Pie Jesu movement from the Requiem by Gabriel Faure: 


Are high ‘handling fees’ scams or fair?

October 22, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is beginning to wonder whether handling fees are sometimes scams and ripoffs in disguise.

A friend recently wanted to buy a good seat to see the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome” in the Overture Center on Nov. 4 and 6.

The ticket ran $141, no small amount to see an opera that lasts only 110 minutes with no intermission.

But in addition, the friend had to pay an additional “handling fee” of $21.

That comes out to about 15 percent (rounded off from 14.89).

Too high to be accounted for just by inflation.

The friend was puzzled since the ticket was booked completely online through a computer. How much handling could there possibly be?

It is enough to make you wonder: Is the percentage indeed fair and a standard business practice

But the so-called handling fee seemed excessive to the friend.

Such an expensive handling fee seemed more and more like fiscal padding.

Maybe it is little more than camouflage to increase profits while making tickets look less expensive than they would be otherwise.

Maybe it is to make up for production costs, not just buying a ticket.

Maybe it is indeed the industry standard.

Bug it seems more and more likely that exorbitant handling fees in arts organizations are similar to what airlines do with baggage fees, leg-room fees, and seating-placement fees.

Similar to what sports teams and athletic organizations do to pressure fans into so-called donations.

To increase the bottom line. Money, money!

Maybe the organizations and offices could simply be open and honest, and tell consumers more about what the “handling fees” actually pay for. Buyers deserve transparency and accountability.

Otherwise handling fees start to seem like more of a scam or a ripoff than a fair price for a necessary service.

What do you think?

Have you had experiences with handling fees that you considered excessive from an arts organization or another business?

How did it make you feel?

The Ear wants to hear.


See and hear The Cliburn piano competition for FREE via streaming. It runs through June 18

June 4, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition got under way this past Thursday, June 2, and will run through Saturday, June 18, when the winners will be announced.

2022 marks the 60th anniversary year of the competition, which the American pianist Van Cliburn founded at Texas Christian University after his 1958 Cold War victory in the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow,.

You can follow it all online. The complete impressive competition is being broadcast on medici.tv and on YouTube.

But The Ear has used the competition’s own streaming website and finds the videos, sound quality, contestant biographies and background information very professional and helpful. So far, it has been a thoroughly satisfying, enjoyable and engaging experience. I highly recommendation it for students, amateur pianists and all music lovers.

For The Ear, one of the most impressive performances from yesterday was given by the 21-year-old Chinese pianist Yangrui Cai (below), heard in the YouTube video at the bottom. Such beautiful and subtly virtuosic but shaded Liszt and Brahms is not often heard.

Here is a link to the home page (below): https://cliburn.org

From there you can hear live performances, past performances and many facts , including the complete schedule, about The Cliburn, as it is now called. All times are Central Daylight.

Starting at 10 a.m. today — Saturday, June 4 — will see the final 10 performances (3 in the morning and night, four in the afternoon) of the preliminary round, which has featured 30 pianists in 40-minute solo recitals. Except for a specially commissioned “Fanfare Toccata” by Sir Stephen Hough, who is also on the jury, the choice of programs is entirely up to the individual contestants.

The road to the Cliburn is not easy.

It started with 388 applicants. That was trimmed down to 72 by preliminary judges. Out of 72, 30 were chosen by jurors to compete.

After today, it will be on to the quarter-finals with 18 contestants in 40-minute recitals with no repetition from the preliminary round; then the semi-final round with 12 contestants in a combination of 60-minute solo recital along with a Mozart piano concerto accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by the Nicholas McGegan, who is famous for his interpretations of Baroque and Classical era music; and the final concerto round with each contestant play two concertos with Fort Worth Symphony under famed conductor Marin Alsop, who is also the head juror.

The Ear will be posting his own thoughts as he experiences the extensive competition, maybe after each round or even each day.

But The Ear also wants to hear from you.

Do you have thoughts about the various contestants?

Who are your favorites and why?

Thoughts about the programs and repertoire being played?

Other thoughts about the competition in general?

The Ear Wants to hear.

 


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YOU MUST HEAR THIS: No piece captures the mixed emotions of Memorial Day better than Charles Ives’ “Decoration Day”

May 30, 2022
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2022.

It is the annual holiday to remember those who died in military service to the country. (Below are flags placed each year at the tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.)

If you want to honor survivors and current service members, that would be Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

All weekend long the radio has been playing music and the television has been showing war movies.

A lot of the music is familiar and repeated every year: Sousa marches and Morton Gould suites, elegies by Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; requiems by Mozart and Fauré; a hymn by John Williams and other movie scores. This year has also seen the playlist include rediscovered works of homage by African-American composers such as William Grant Still.

But only this year did The Ear finally hear — thanks to Wisconsin Public Radio — the one piece that, to his mind, best captures Memorial Day with its blending of consonance and dissonance, its mix of major and major keys, of familiar or “found” music and original music.

It is called, simply, “Decoration Day” and it was composed in 1912 — but not published until 1989 — by the 20th-century iconoclastic and early modernist American composer Charles Ives (below, 1874-1954). It ended up as part of a work the composer called “A Symphony: New England Hollidays.”

See if you agree with The Ear.

Listen to the 8-minute performance by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Listen to the deep anguish and and sense of loss conveyed in the opening, when a solemn remembrance procession goes to a cemetery to plant flags and lay flowers and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of the fallen.

Listen carefully and you will hear a faint version of “Taps” and ringing church bells in the atmospheric music.

Then as so often happens in reality, life suddenly intrudes in the form of a celebration by a loud marching brass band as it leaves the cemetery for the celebratory marches, picnics and fireworks.

But at the end, the darkness briefly returns. The sense of loss lingers long after the actual death and long after the holiday has been celebrated.

There is no closure.

Just resignation.

Just living with loss.

Here is the background from Wikipedia about how the holiday started as Decoration Day after the Civil War and when it evolved into Memorial Day in 1970: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

And here is biographical background, with the actual sources and depictions of “Decoration Day”  — just go  down the page to compositions and click — about Charles Ives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

Did you know and like Charles Ives’ music?

Does “Decoration Day” impress or move you?

What music most embodies Memorial Day for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Too bad the Wisconsin Union Theater didn’t book a great pianist for next season

May 21, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

“We are living in a Golden Age of pianists,”  famed concert pianist, Juilliard teacher and frequent Madison performer Emanuel Ax (below) has said.

He should know. But you would never guess that from the recently announced next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater (below).

The WUT has not booked a solo pianist for the 2022-23 season.

Here is a link to the lineup for the next season:

https://union.wisc.edu/visit/wisconsin-union-theater/seasonevents/

Is The Ear the only one who has noticed and is disappointed?

Who else feels bad about it?

After all, this is the same presenting organization that brought to Madison such legendary pianists as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, Percy Grainger, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Dame Myra Hess, Guiomar Novaes, Egon Petri, Robert Casadesus, William Kapell, Claudio Arrau, Alexander Brailowsky, Gary Graffman, Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Byron Janis, Misha Dichter, Peter Serkin, André Watts, Lili Kraus and Garrick Ohlsson

It is the same hall (below) in which The Ear has heard Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Valentina Lisitsa, Andras Schiff, Joyce Yang, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk, Ingrid Fliter, Richard Goode, Leon Fleisher, Simone Dinnerstein, Wu Han and so many other great and memorable names including, of course, Emanuel Ax.

What a history!

As you can see and as The Ear likes to say, the Wisconsin Union Theater is “The Carnegie Hall of Madison.” For over 100 years, it is where the great ones play.

One irony is that many of those former bookings of pianists took place when the University of Wisconsin School of Music had many more pianists on the faculty and provided a major alternative venue for piano recitals.

Another irony is that so many young people take piano lessons (below) and are apt to want to attend, probably with their parents, to hear a live professional concert piano recital. You would think the WUT would also see the advantages of having such community outreach links to the public and to music education, especially since the WUT has hosted Open Piano Day for the public. (See the YouTube video of a Channel 3000 story in February 2020 at the bottom.)

From what The Ear reads, there are lots of up-and-coming pianists, many affordable names of various winners of national and international competitions. They should be affordable as well as worthy of being introduced to the Madison public.

But that seems a mission now largely left to the Salon Piano Series.

Plus, so many of the new pianists are young Asians who have never appeared here, which should be another draw for the socially responsible and diversity-minded WUT.

But that is another story for another day.

What do you think of the WUT not presenting a solo pianist next season?

Maybe there will be a pianist booked for the 2023-24 season.

What pianists would you like see booked by the WUT student programming committee?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Should the 1812 Overture be played this Fourth of July?

May 2, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently noticed that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has once again scheduled the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky (below) as part of the finale of its Fourth of July concert on the evening of July 6, 2022.

The performance is part of this summer’s FREE Concerts on the Square (COS) by the WCO that run on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 29 through Aug. 3. Concerts start at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, and will be conducted by Andrew Sewell.

For more information about the series and individual performers and programs, go to: https://wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square

An asterisk says programs are subject to change.

Which got The Ear to thinking: Should Tchaikovsky’s perennial favorite, the flashy and loud  1812 Overture, be played again this year?

It is a tradition that was started on Independence Day in 1974 by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops, according to reputable sources. 

But this year might be a very different case because of a quandary that might cause organizers, including PBS’ “A Capitol Fourth,” to rethink the program. 

It is a choice that will confront many musical groups across the U.S., given the current unprovoked brutality and and war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine.

After all, many music groups, including the Metropolitan Opera, have already banned Russian performers who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his unjustified war in Ukraine (below).

So here’s the question: Is it appropriate to play a favorite work celebrating a Russian military victory while Ukraine, the United States and Western allies, including NATO, are desperately trying to defeat Russian forces?

As you may recall, the overture was inspired by Russia’s victory over the invading forces of Napoleon who was attempting go conquer Russia. Like Hitler and the Nazis, Napoleon failed and the Russians prevailed. That is why, in the work, you hear the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” overcome by the chimes and cannons of the Russian victory hymn. (There was no Russian national anthem until 1815.)

Here is a link to more background in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_Overture

Will the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra or other orchestras as well as radio and TV stations around the U.S. find a substitute piece? Perhaps it could be the Ukrainian national anthem that is performed (as in the BBC Proms concert in the YouTube video at the bottom and as many other orchestras around the world, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain, have done).

What else could the WCO and other groups play — especially since Sousa marches are already usually featured on The Fourth?

Do you have a suggestion?

The Ear will be interested to see how the quandary is solved — with explanations and excuses, or with alternative music?

Meanwhile, as comedian Stephen Colbert likes to say: What do you think?

Should the “1812 Overture” be played on this Fourth of July?

Why?

Or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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