The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Want to know how professional musicians practice? For the next 100 days on Instagram, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn will show you

August 13, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many listeners and many amateur musicians often wonder: How do professionals do it? How do they practice to prepare for a performance? And what goes on in the practice rooms (below) of major conservatories and schools of music where tomorrow’s professionals study?

Of course the usual advice is to play slowly, to repeat difficult sections and to break a larger piece down into smaller parts.

But it is one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to see professionals follow their own advice and put it into practice. The Ear finds that it often inspires him to work harder and better, and more efficiently and satisfyingly.

Many performers seem reluctant to show up what goes into a career, to show the hard work of practicing that leads to apparently effortless performing.

Not Hilary Hahn (below, in a  photo by Peter Miller), the outstanding violin virtuoso who has performed several times at the Wisconsin Union Theater in some of the finest programs The Ear has ever heard.

Recently Hahn, the thoughtful three-time Grammy Award winner, started a series called #100daysofpractice on her Instagram account called “Hilary Hahn’s Violincase.” It is worth subscribing to for the short one-minute videos.

It is fascinating to see such a gifted professional slowing down passages of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean Sibelius – music Hahn already knows intimately and has recorded — and to hear and appreciate how she continues to practice making hard leaps, negotiating difficult transitions, adjusting bowing, correcting off-pitches and finding difficult fingering and hand positions.

If you haven’t seen and heard it for yourself, treat yourself. You will learn a lot that will help you to appreciate the physicality of making music and perhaps even help you to play it better yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.instagram.com/violincase/

And there is another sample in the YouTube video at the bottom:

What do you think?

Do you know of other sites on the web and social media that document professional musicians practicing? If so, please leave the address in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Mixing old and new music. Violinist Hilary Hahn talks about the works she commissioned and will play alongside classics when she performs Sunday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

April 20, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger 

There are many great violinists playing today. But arguably the most important and innovative is 36-year-old Hilary Hahn (below), the thoughtful virtuoso who returns to perform a MUST-HEAR recital in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday night.

The last two recitals there by Hahn were two of the most memorable live chamber music performances The Ear has ever heard.

Hilary Hahn 2016

Tickets are $27.50 to $50.50. UW-Madison students are $10.

Here is a link to information about tickets, the program and audio samples:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/hilary-hahn.html

During her 20-year career, Hahn – who often mixes the old and new both in live performances and on recordings — has consistently turned in astounding performances of the violin repertoire, including classics. Those works include concertos and sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Niccolo Paganini, Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Ives, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and others.

But she also frequently commissions and adds new works to the repertoire, including a concerto by Edgar Meyer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning concerto by Jennifer Higdon, who teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of music where Hahn studied. Plus, she is a talented and charming “postcard” blogger and interviewer.

Both sides of Hilary Hahn’s artistry – the classic and the contemporary — will be on display during her Madison recital. The very busy Hahn (below, in a photo by Peter Miller) recently agreed to do an email Q&A with The Ear:

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

You have long been known as an innovative artist. What are your new and upcoming projects, including recordings and commissions?

I’m in the middle of a 14-month-long artist residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It’s my first such experience, so I feel like a kid in a candy store, getting to try out ideas sequentially that I would otherwise have to stretch over several years.

I’m excited to include among my residency performing as soloist with five different orchestras in the same hall, as well as giving a recital there and developing local initiatives to bring the community and classical music even closer together. Next year, I will be in residence in Seattle and Lyon. It’s been fun seeing what residency activities I want to carry over and what I can add that is specific to each city.

As far as commissions go, over this season and next, I’m world-premiering and touring a significant new contribution to the solo violin repertoire, Six Partitas by Antón García Abril (below), written for me.

That is a meaningful project for me, because I sensed that Mr. García Abril would write a fantastic set of pieces if I could convince him to take on the assignment. He decided to do it and the music turned out to be more wonderful and inspiring to play than I could have imagined. It feels like those phrases breathe with me and the notes fit in my hands.

In addition, I am in the process of wrapping up the original trajectory of my project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores. After some concerts on this upcoming tour, as encores, my recital partner Cory Smythe and I will be giving world premieres of the Honorable Mentions from my Encores contest.

Finally, in the fall, the complete edition of the sheet music for all 27 original works will be published as a single edition, with my fingerings, bowings and performance notes.

Anton García Abril BW

Is there an underlying unity or purpose to your program of works by Mozart, Bach, García Abril, Copland and Davidson?

I hope the listeners will find their own versions of unity and purpose in the program. The pieces weren’t assembled randomly, but then again, everyone listens differently.

García Abril’s Six Partitas, of which I will play No. 1, entitled “Heart,” are solo polyphonic works. The violin alone carries multiple melodic lines, as well as providing its own harmonies. Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) wrote his polyphonic Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 1720. I felt it was important to carry forward this particular type of composition into the present day, so I commissioned Mr. García Abril (below bottom, in a photo by Julio Ficha) to create this set of works. (You can hear Hilary Hahn interview Anton Garcia Abril in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

His writing for violin is compelling, fluid, emotional, clever and expressively rich in a way that I felt needed to be explored further. Especially as this is the premiere tour of his Partita No. 1, I wanted to juxtapose the new work with one of Bach’s, namely the Third Sonata with its complex and multifaceted fugue.

As for the duo pieces on the program, the compositional styles — though they span 250 years — have a certain openness in common: the writing is not densely layered, leaving lots of room for imagination.

Bach1

Anton García Abril CR Julio Ficha

What about the works by Mozart and Copland?

Mozart’s set of sonatas for keyboard and violin is one of the most extensive for this instrumentation, and since I was a student, I’ve been adding at least one to my repertoire annually. It’s wonderful to explore such a prolific composer’s work over a long stretch of time. This particular sonata vacillates among stormy drama, lyricism and playfulness.

The piece by Aaron Copland (below) is gorgeous, revealing. In this sonata, Copland’s musical language is clearly recognizable, but the texture is more sparse than in his famous larger-ensemble works, making it boldly direct and engrossing to listen to.

aaron copland

And the music by Tina Davidson?

The work by Tina Davidson (below) follows on the tonality of the Copland, but the composer’s treatment of the music goes in an entirely different direction. “Blue Curve of the Earth” was written in Wyoming during an artist residency, and was inspired by a photo of the edge of the Earth from space. The music is dreamy yet dimensional, angular yet lush. “Blue Curve of the Earth” is from the Encores project.

Tina Davidson

What would you like the public to know about composers Antón García Abril and Tina Davidson and their violin music or music in general?

I like to picture where pieces were written; the surroundings can add another dimension to the music. Environment influences the creative process. The studio is the private stage. Antón works in a studio outside of Madrid that his son, the architect by the same name, designed for him. Tina is based out of a refashioned church in Pennsylvania, with vaulted ceilings and a garden.

Both write beautifully for voice. Since violin can be a lyrical instrument and is tonally varied, capable of both sustaining and articulating, the ability to write expressively for voice transfers to the violin. Also, I have the impression that both composers start from a strong conceptual point with their works. When I play their music, the big line is the first thing that jumps out at me; the myriad fine details support the gestures.

Hilary Hahn playing 2 horizontal

If you play an encore or two, will they be from the ones you commissioned a couple of years ago and won a Grammy for?

That’s the plan! I feel very close to those pieces. Great encores exist from previous centuries, too; I never rule out the classics.

Why did you commission 27 short encores?

I began to notice that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and I believed that potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.

How successful have they been with the public and with other artists?

The public embraced the project. The music contained within the Encores is varied and imaginative. Each composer had a different concept of what an encore can add to today’s musical landscape.

I think every listener can find at least one work that is particularly poignant. I want the audience to discover these pieces for themselves. It is thrilling to listen to music that you have never heard before and, uninfluenced by other people’s opinions, be free to feel your own response.

This project is something I’ve been working on for a long time; I would estimate that my direct involvement in all of the different parts will wind up having a 15-year arc. What I have learned on musical and creative levels from working with the composers will stay with me for my whole career, and the logistical lessons from organizing such a big project will influence my future work.

Most importantly, I hope the Encores themselves will continue in the active repertoire beyond my lifetime. That will be up to other performers, of course.

Hilary Hahn Encores CD cover

You have played here several times, both concertos and solo recitals. Is there anything you would like to say about performing in Madison and about Madison audiences?

I really enjoy Madison itself. It’s in a beautiful part of the country. I’ll never forget the first time I visited, in the winter, when the city was covered by snow and one of the sidewalks featured a table topped by a tower of knit hats and sweaters. As for the Madison audience, their curiosity and involvement are energizing.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Hello, everyone!


Classical music: Conductor Steve Kurr talks about the all-Beethoven program that the Middleton Community Orchestra performs this Friday night with pianist Thomas Kasdorf and the Madison Symphony Chorus.

December 14, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It is definitely not your typical program at holiday time.

But it sure is appealing — and timely too, given the birthday on this Wednesday, Dec. 16, of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

This Friday night – NOT the usual Wednesday night concert time — the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform a big and ambitious all-Beethoven program.

Middleton Community Orchestra press photo1

The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center (below, the exterior and interior) that is attached to Middleton High School.

Middleton PAC2

Middleton PAC1

The program features the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica” and the Choral Fantasy. Guest artists include the Madison Symphony Chorus and returning pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

Admission is $10; free for students. Advance tickets are available at a variety of outlets. The box office opens at 7 p.m. and the theater opens at 7:30 p.m.

As always, there will be an informal meet-and-greet reception for musicians and the audience after the performance.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

For more information about the Madison Community Orchestra, including its spring concerts and how to join it or support it, visit:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

Conductor Steve Kurr took time out from his busy schedule of teaching and rehearsing to discuss the program via email with The Ear.

Steve Kurr.

The “Eroica” is one of Beethoven’s biggest, most famous and most popular symphonies. Why did you program it for an amateur orchestra?

I think you answered your own question. Our musicians and our audience are interested in experiencing a titanic work like the “Eroica.” We are having a spectacular time as we prepare the work–learning the ins and outs of this symphony and getting to know more about Beethoven and his compositional processes. And it has opportunities for each instrument to shine, so it is fun to play.

What kind of technical and interpretative challenges will the “Eroica” pose to you and to the players in the Middleton Community Orchestra?

One of the toughest parts of the “Eroica” is its size. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, this work can be taxing for players both physically and mentally.

In addition, there are some overarching ideas that Beethoven begins in the opening movement that are not resolved until the finale and we have to keep those in mind over the length of the whole symphony.

There are also some typical Beethoven gestures that add to this mix–such as the crescendo leading to a sudden piano–that shows up all over the place in the “Eroica.”

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

What special things should the public listen for in the “Eroica”?

  • The connection of this symphony to Napoleon is well documented.  Beethoven (below top) dedicated the work to the French leader, but was so incensed when Napoleon (below bottom) declared himself emperor that he scratched the dedication out on the cover page. But the original idea of the piece being “heroic” remains.
  • The work was composed around the same time as his ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus” and includes some similar thematic material.  Think about Prometheus as you listen.
  • The premier coup d’archet (“opening stroke of the bow”) at the very start calls the audience to sit up and pay attention–a very exciting way to start.
  • Tovey’s Cloud: The odd resolution to the opening phrase (heard in the cello just seconds into the first movement) was identified by musicologist Donald Francis Tovey back in the first half of the 20th Century as a cloud that hung over the work and is not resolved until much later in the work.
  • The accents throughout the opening movement obscure the meter and propel the movement forward, and there are some exquisite dissonances in the first movement that increase a tension that does not truly resolve until the finale. It is almost as if the Romantic Period is struggling, as we listen in, to emerge from the composer’s pen.
  • Right before we return to the opening material in the first movement, the strings become as quiet as they have ever been and the horn barges in with an “accidental” statement of the first theme. Publishers and conductors at first thought it was a mistake in the parts, but the sketches for the piece included that little gag from the very beginning.
  • For the first time, the dance movement (the minuet in earlier symphonies, the scherzo by this work) has taken on a scope and weight equal to the rest of the piece.
  • The da capo or repeat of the scherzo movement is completely written out (a major use of ink in his day) so that he could insert just a few measures of duple meter in one spot–definitely a curious and charming moment.
  • The theme upon which the finale is based is one of those Prometheus melodies, but it also shows up in a set of piano variations and in a contredanse.  Overall, the finale has a definite feeling of dance to it.
  • The finale combines the idea of a set of variations and the sonata form concept.

Beethoven big

Napoleon

What did you program the Choral Fantasy with the Eroica Symphony?

Pairing Beethoven works together has benefits. It puts us in a Beethoven frame of mind, which helps the musicians focus on the style.  And with the length of the “Eroica,” the “Choral Fantasy” fits so well into a concert program. It is also nice to pair a lesser-known work with the familiar “Eroica.”

Who will perform the choral part in the Choral Fantasy? And what should we listen for in the work?

We are extremely excited to be joining with the Madison Symphony Chorus (below in a photo by Greg Anderson) for this endeavor.  It will be one of our first times working with a chorus, and we are all looking forward to the chance to collaborate with this first-rate ensemble.

The piece is an unusual one: it begins with a large piano solo section followed by a section that trades back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra.

It ends with the piano, orchestra and chorus joining together for a rousing finish that foreshadows the last movement (“Ode to Joy”) of the Ninth Symphony.

The piece was premiered on Dec. 22, 1808 (with the composer at the keyboard) at a concert that also included the Fifth and Sixth (“Pastoral”)  Symphonies. Listen for the improvisatory quality of the opening piano solo and for the text, written by Christoph Kuffner, which extols music and its great powers. (NOTE: In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it performed live at the BBC Proms by Norwegian pianist and conductor Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Singers.) 

Madison Symphony Chorus women CR Greg Anderson

Thomas Kasdorf, a talented Middleton native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, is the piano soloist in the Choral Fantasy. He has done a number of concertos by other composers such as Edvard Grieg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with you. Will he become a regular with the MCO? Might you do a cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with him?

We always enjoy having Mr. Kasdorf as our soloist. He is an excellent musician and he is what I might call a low-maintenance soloist–working with him is effortless. I sincerely hope to continue our collaborations, but I hesitate to speculate on any future repertoire. But the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven is a favorite of mine, so Thomas and I may have to chat.

thomas kasdorf 2:jpg

Is there anything else you would like to say?

It is such an honor to work with these marvelous people in the Middleton Community Orchestra.  This is our sixth season and we continue to enjoy spending our Wednesday evenings making music together.

 


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