The Well-Tempered Ear

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:

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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Classical music: Famed pianist Byron Janis reached out for Chopin. Did Chopin return the favor from beyond the grave?

August 28, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, The Ear posted a story by pianist Jeremy Denk that, to his mind, did the best job ever of explaining why the music of Frederic Chopin appeals so universally.

Here is a link:

Then more recently The Ear heard another story that involved the famed pianist Byron Janis (below), who studied with Vladimir Horowitz when he was a teenager.

He then went on to a spectacular virtuosic career before his hands were partially crippled by severe psoriatic arthritis. (You can hear him play less virtuosic music very poetically in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Through his piano playing and his library searches, Janis has reached out to Chopin, with some impressive results, including discovering lost manuscripts of famous waltzes.

But more surprising is Janis’ claim that, through a death mask, Chopin has returned the favor from beyond the grave and reached out to him in a paranormal or supernatural way.

The story was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR). It aired on the Saturday version of Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, and then was posted on the blog Deceptive Cadence.

Here is a link:

What do you think?

Do you believe Byron Janis’ story and explanation?

What do you think of his Chopin playing?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: As we head into Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber-Monday, how appealing as holiday gifts are complete CD boxed sets?

November 29, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Black Friday, known for deep price cuts, huge sales and outrageous store hours that draw massive crowds — and for putting retails business in the profitable black at the end of the year.

Tomorrow is Small Business Saturday, which is supposed to encourage us to patronize local businesses.

And Monday is Cyber-Monday for on-line Internet shopping.

Never mind that they are all starting to get mixed up and to become one big, long shopping frenzy.

Black Friday Shopping

As I do every year, I will hunt out and post on this blog the “Best of 2013” lists, which should feature lots of recordings, some great DVDs and also some noteworthy books about classical music. Here are some links to last year’s from NPR, The New York Times and The New Yorker and Gramophone magazines among others. After all,  the music and the performances are just as good as it was a year ago:

But recently The New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini (below) wrote about the phenomenon of these multi-CD boxed sets, containing dozens of CDs and costing hundreds of dollars (unless of course you are a reviewer) that often use original LP covers and that give you the encore output” – or “oeuvre,” if you like – of a particular performer (like pianist Arthur Rubinstein, below) or composer. But they also probably offer lots of duplicates to serious collectors who already have a substantial number of recordings.


Tommasini remarks on the seeming contradictions of these as music becomes more and more about digital downloads rather than physical Compact Discs.

Arthur Rubinstein CD box set

He makes some intriguing points worth considering if you are hunting for a special classical music gift.

So in honor of the days-long holiday shopping frenzy that is facing us, here is a link to Tommasini’s story that covers several major pianists including Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall (below top, bowing, in a  photo by Don Hunstein, and below middle in the scale model “Carnegie Hall” box container), Murray Perahia (below bottom) and Van Cliburn as well as Byron Janis, Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman plus the composer Benjamin Britten, whose birth centennial was on Nov. 22.

Benjamin Britten Complete CD set


The Ear wants to hear.

Vladimir Horowitz in Caregie Hall Don Hunstein,jpg

Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall CB whole box

Murray Perahia box

Classical music news: It’s all about sex and stardom for pianists as Lang Lang gets roasted by the New York Times and Lola Astanova gets the seal of approval from famed Vladimir Horowitz pupil Byron Janis.

June 3, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is it a mark of the times that the piano news this week seems more about sex and superstardom than about substance?

You may recall that last week on Tuesday, I posted an alert about the links at the New York City radio station WQXR so that readers could listen LIVE to the Carnegie Hall recital of Bach, Schubert and Chopin by the Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang (below, in photo from that recital by Ian Douglas for The New York Times).

Here is a link to that post, where you can still stream that concert and listen to it for yourself:

This time the reviewer who roasted the pianist was Vivien Schweitzer (below), though in the past I seem to recall that all of the Times’ critics have had their turn, and all pretty much agreed: Lang Lang has made some progress from being the flamboyant and flashy virtuoso to being a serious musician, but he still  has a long way to go.

Here is a link to that review that shows that Lang Lang’s tricks are getting a little stale, tiresome and dated for someone who is almost 30:

Speaking of making progress:

You may also recall several posts I had regarding the fashion plate and leggy pianist Lola Astanova (below top) and whether she would challenge the controversial but popular micro-skirted Yuja Wang (below bottom).

I also pointed out that a lot of the critics didn’t particularly like Astanova’s playing when she made her Carnegie Hall debut — in a program billed as a Tribute to Horowitz — at a benefit for the American Cancer Society.

But good luck recently smiled on Astanova.

No one less than the famed pianist Byron Janis (below), the virtuoso and former pupil of Vladimir Horowitz who had to curtail his career because of arthritis, recently picked Astanova as the only pianist to play at an event marking his receiving an lifetime achievement award from the Yahama Music and Wellness Institute at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center.

No word that I can find from critics yet about how well she played. But here is a story with the particulars:

Janis, by the way, has a new compilation (below) of his older and out-of-print Chopin recordings – shorter and less virtuosic or technically demanding works like mazurkas, waltzes and nocturnes – reissued by EMI, with a flashy red cover and sexy Jean Cocteau-like or Matisse-like swirling drawing , to celebrate the event. It is a fine compilation and one well worth having.

Classical music review: Mainstream critics got it all wrong, says an eye-witness and ear-witness whose first-hand account of pianist Lola Astanova’s Carnegie Hall recital sees it quite differently.

February 4, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that a couple of week ago, I posted stories about the Carnegie Hall recital debut to benefit the American Cancer Society by 28-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below), who likes to perform in the latest fashions and who is not shy about promoting herself and her good looks to further her concert career. (That is why she also invites comparison to pianist Yuja Wang.)

Here is a link to that first post:

Then a week later, I posted a number of reviews of that recital. Most of the critics said it was so-so, though a couple were more enthusiastic. Here is a link to that second post:

But subsequently I heard two listeners who each attended the recital and were there on the spot.

Now, of course, we all know how unreliable eyewitnesses can be thanks to the many death-penalty reversals secured around the U.S. by The Innocence Project. Eyewitness testimony has long known to be notoriously unreliable.

Add in the subjectivity of the arts and of both the person making the art and the person consuming it, and the question of reliability is compounded many times.

In any case today and tomorrow I want to offer two sides, one pro and one con, from two people who both attended the recital.

You can make up your own mind which one is right, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.

Today I feature Alexander Grey who wrote at length and thoughtfully to the blog, in two installments. He offered the following impressions and evaluation of the recital by Astanova:


First of all, I always enjoy reading your blog because you always try to be fair (even if you have a strong opinion), and always leave the decision up to your readers. I respect that.

So I have to say something about this Astanova concert, and all the negative reviews that you mentioned. I attended the concert, and here is what bothers me about these reviews:

First of all, nobody mentioned that Astanova received a standing ovation from nearly 3,000 people in attendance and was called back on stage (below) three times. A relevant piece of information when measuring how successful a concert went, wouldn’t you say? Especially in New York, where people are experienced (and even spoiled) concert-goers.

Secondly, nobody mentioned that among other famous names the concert was attended by Byron Janis (below), who stayed until the very end (I was sitting two rows behind him) and who was applauding standing up when Astanova finished. I think it is fair to assume that Mr. Janis knows about the piano and understands this music no less than your average critic, wouldn’t you agree? Unless one is willing to dismiss Mr. Janis’ opinion as dilettante.

Thirdly, while Astanova does seem to put a lot of thought into her outfits (she changed her dress for the second part), she did not wear anything even REMOTELY as revealing at that orange Yuja Wang number (below). Astanova wore two long gowns that showed very little skin. With that said, I think you’d have to agree that she could wear a long overcoat with neck-high boots, and people would still say that she was “pushing sex.” Let’s be honest, if she looked like a boy and weighted 200 lbs. nobody would say a word about her outfits even if she’d play in lace lingerie.

Finally, I understand that no two people are alike and opinions differ. No argument there. But I was at Carnegie Hall that night, and Astanova’s performance was very solid, and to dismiss it as “mediocre” makes me question the professionalism and objectivity of the reviewers who make such claim  particularly given their omission of the above mentioned information.

You know, promotion and marketing only go so far. Promotion can get people into a hall (maybe), but it can’t make them love a concert. And like it or not, but 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall loved her. And, frankly, the amount of heated discussions that Astanova generates only further confirms that she is anything, but mediocre.

I personally don’t like everything she does, but I think it’s great for classical music to finally produce a star that has mainstream appeal, and can get more people excited about classical repertoire. That is good for everyone.

Then came a follow-up when I asked Alexander about using his “Comment” as a post:

Hi Jake,

Thanks very much for your note.  You are certainly welcome to use my comments, though given the number of people who attended and obviously enjoyed the concert, I would not call them the “minority report.”

I am, of course, aware that Byron Janis was only “official” student of Vladimir Horowitz (below), and I thought the fact that he came to this concert, stayed until the end (despite appearing quite frail) and applauded on his feet when Astanova was done spoke volumes about her ability.  People like Mr. Janis almost never come out for anyone so I was plain amazed to see him and his reaction.

By the way, I’m pretty sure I also saw David Dubal (below, a professor of piano and performance at Juilliard and another authority on Horowitz) at the concert as well.  I don’t know if he wrote anything about it, but I’m 99% sure he was there.

In my view all these details are valuable, and one of the reasons some of the “official” reviews bothered me so much is because they ignored all of them and ended up suspiciously lop-sided. Having several reporter friends who occasionally share “dishes from their professional kitchens” I was not very surprised: $850,000 in jewels is simply too easy a target for an up-and-coming critic to pass.

By the way, here I have to applaud you again for pointing out that Mr. Zachary Woolfe (below) is actually not a New York Times critic – an important detail that, probably, escaped most people.

But much like you, I noted it as I was disappointed that New York Times did not assign the likes of senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) to review this concert.  I wanted to read a seasoned and respected critic’s review, but we did not get it this time.  Alas.

I think I said in my original comment that Ms. Astanova may not necessarily be “my cup of tea,” but fair is fair.  She was poised, charismatic, gracious, and had a point of view. And I have to say I enjoyed it.  Time will tell, of course, but I think she is here to stay, and I believe it would be good for classical music.

Also, Ms. Astanova raised a sum in the six-figures for cancer research that night.  That’s very real money that goes to save lives.  How many classical musicians (or critics for that matter) can say the same?  Something to think about and acknowledge …

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