The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Kevin Puts answers on NPR the question: “Why write symphonies today?”

August 10, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Is the novel dead yet?

Well, some say yes and some say no. I suppose it depends on what you are looking for.

Lots and lots of novels continue to be written and published, and to sell big.

But then again, one can argue, the novel just doesn’t seem to have the cultural power or sway, or the same serious reader appeal, that it once held in the 19th and 20th centuries.

So can one ask the same thing about the symphony?

Why should one compose today in a musical form or genre that can seem so outdated, according to some who critics who point out that it dates back to at least Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century with roots going back even further back than that.

The American composer Kevin Puts (below, in a photo by Andrew Shapter), defends writing symphonies, even as he is doing so. Puts, you may recall, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his opera “Silent Night,” about the Christmas Truce on the front lines and in the trenches during World War I.

puts

By the way, Kevin Puts’ own 2001 postmodern orchestral piece “Inspiring Beethoven,” which is based on the famous Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 (below, in a YouTube video with intriguing schematic graphics and over 5 million hits)  was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago. (You can hear “Inspiring Beethoven” performed in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven big

Anyway, Kevin Puts tackles the question of the relevance of the symphony – and the concerto, for that matter — head on in an essay he did for NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

The Ear finds his case compelling and shares his defense of the symphony. Maybe you will too.

Here is a link to Puts’ essay, which has a lot of specific modern composer names and examples of modern symphonies as well as links:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/08/05/208280751/a-pulitzer-winner-asks-why-write-symphonies

What do you think? Is the symphony or concerto outdated or dead?

Do you have a favorite modern or contemporary symphony?

What is your favorite symphony of all time?

The Ear  wants to hear.

But in the mean time, please excuse me.

I have to get back to working on the pre-deceased novel I am writing.

Maybe I’ll listen to a symphony while I am writing it.


Classical music: Iraq war veteran and writer Brian Castner will see “The Long Walk,” his memoir of his own experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), turned into an opera that will premiere in 2014 in New York City.

August 5, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

After a decade or more of Americans fighting wars, it seems almost inevitable.

Lots of people have talked about PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But not too many people have sung about it.

That could change soon.

Iraq war veteran and writer Brian Castner (below) will soon see his memoir “The Long Walk,” about his experience in dealing with war and PTSD, turned into an opera that is scheduled to receive its world premiere in 2014 at the American Lyric Theater in New York City which has commissioned the work.

Brian Castner

The Long Walk book cover

The composer is Jeremy Howard Beck and the librettist is Stephanie Fleischmann. They are pictured in the photo below with Brian Castner in the center.

The Long Walk USE big L-R. librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, writer Brian Castner, librettist Jeremy Howard Beck for American Lyric Theater

Recently NPR’s terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” featured a piece on the collaboration and subject matter. It included an overview with interviews and background plus an audio snippet that is also worth listening to

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/20/203681940/a-veterans-true-story-leaps-from-page-to-stage

And here is a link to another story about the project on Opera Pulse, an online website specializing in opera;

http://www.operapulse.com/opera-news/2013/02/12/american-lyric-theater-commissions-the-long-walk/

The Ear likes the idea. It is certainly is a different and more contemporary take on war and armed conflict than the romanticized and melodramatic versions one often finds in grand opera or even a lot of classic literature.

It seems more realistic and more in keeping with the current way that veterans wage armed conflict and then return home to a different, more personal and more difficult war.

The Long Walk poster by American Lyric Theater

We’ll have to see how good it is. (See the YouTube video at the bottom for the creators discussing the new opera.)

But if it holds up as a work of musical and theatrical art, it sure would seem a natural choice for Madison – perhaps the Madison Opera, which next season will stage Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” or at least the University Opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which can afford to be more experimental and controversial.

What do you think of the idea or inspiration?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog about The Great American Symphony generates a lot of responses from readers and musicians. They say there are many candidates. But how many have you know of, or have actually heard? Why don’t we hear more American classical music performed? Is the “industry” too Euro-centric?

August 3, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

A while ago, around American Independence Day on the Fourth of July, NPR’s outstanding classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” asked if The Great American Symphony – like The Great American Novel – already exists, or has yet to be written.

It also asked both readers and professional performers to name some of the greatest American music, symphonies or other genres, that deserve a wider hearing and more performances.

npr

The posting got well-deserved responses from readers and professional musicians. And the answers are still pouring in.

Here is what The Ear wants to know: Why don’t we hear more about these candidates for The Great American Symphony? In fact, we don’t we get to hear them in performance.

Is it because they are inferior? Or overlooked?

Or is classical music subject to a bias that favors Europe over American, the Old World over the New World?

We hear Samuel Barber’s Violin concerto often enough. So, why not his symphonies? (You can hear part of Barber’s Symphony No. 1, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin in YouTube video at the bottom.)  And the same applies to many other composers.

Here is a link to my original post, with stories featuring links to NPR blogger Tom Huizenga and to “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel’s interview with American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below) about this:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/classical-music-does-the-great-american-symphony-exist-or-even-its-equivalent-in-a-different-form-or-genre-american-conductor-joann-falletta-takes-up-the-challenging-question-on-n/

conducting_joann_falletta

Here are some other important links to follow-up, with audio samples, to other candidates for The Great American Symphony. Be sure to read the enlightening reader COMMENTS in all of them:

Here is one that includes offerings by that American-born and American-trained champion of American music conductor Marin Alsop (below):

Marin Alsop

And the masterful cultural historian Joseph Horowitz  (below), who spoke so engagingly in Madison two seasons ago during the centennial of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet offered these thoughts:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/11/201231850/tracing-the-spirit-of-the-early-american-symphony

joseph horowitz

And here are three of the more recent ones:

Here is one that features the opinions of Robert Spano (below), the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the music director of the Aspen Music Festival:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/26/205806474/americas-unsung-symphonies

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/22/204586780/3-NEW-AMERICAN-SYMPHONIC-ALBUMS

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/29/206704925/using-an-american-medium-to-tell-distinctly-american-stories

unsung

Do you have candidates for The Great American Symphony that the others haven’t mentioned? What is it?

And is classical music in the U.S. the victim of a Euro-centric bias?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What does it feel like to hold, play and hear Mozart’s own violin and viola? America just had its first chance ever to find out. Here’s a report.

June 22, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you want some idea of what a prodigious talent the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, below) was, you might recall not only his enormous amount of music in 35 years with such a high percentage of masterpieces, or his astonishing virtuosity as a keyboard player (he composed all and premiered most of his 27 piano concertos).

You might also recall that he was an outstanding violinist — his oppressively ambitious father Leopold said that his son could have become the best violinist in Europe with some more effort and work – and also a violist who loved to pay the viola in the same string quartet where fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn played the violin.

mozart big

Anyway, for more than 200 years Mozart’s instruments have been stored in a museum in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Austria.

But the instruments were recently brought to the United State for the first time in history and appeared at the Boston Early Music Festival. (That is also where the University of Wisconsin-Madison duo Ensemble SDG, featuring keyboard John Chappell Stowe and baroque violinist Edith Hines, performed an all-Heinrich Bieber concert.)

Hearing about the unusual security measures taken for the trip to guarantee their security – including separate airplane flights — is fascinating.

But most fascinating of all is a first-person account of what it feels like to hold and play and listen Mozart’s own string instruments, which generally featured mellowness rather than brilliance.

You can hear about it all on NPR’s great classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” and through writer Anastasias Tsioulcas’ experience with Mozart’s own string instruments. (Below is a photo by Kathy Wittman of Amandine Beyer holding the violin backstage in Boston during the festival.)

amandine_beyer_violin

Here is a link. Do yourself a favor listen to it — don’t just read the transcript. I hope that you enjoy it and that it enhance even further (deeper?) your opinion of Wolfie:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/06/14/190975113/playing-mozart-on-mozarts-violin

And here is a link to a live performance on Mozart’s own:

http://www.npr.org/event/music/191709140/mozarts-violin-comes-to-boston-live-in-concert

Of course, possessing a fine instrument doesn’t guarantee being a great composer. But Mozart could play his own works, including the Violin Concerto No. 3, which you can hear below with Hilary Hahn in a YouTube video that has had more than a million hits:


Classical music: Classical music makes driving more dangerous than hip-hop or heavy metal, researchers say.

March 24, 2013
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday was the good news: Making music can be good for health.

It can lower blood pressure and enhance a feeling of well-being.

Today comes the bad news: Listening to classical music leads to traffic accidents, more so than other music, researchers say, including hip-hop and heavy metal.

One person died in this three-car crash. (KATU News photo)

Perhaps that is because the music is better and more engaging, or more difficult to ignore.

But that positive quality could be deadly.

Here is a link to the story on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/01/23/170067480/back-off-the-bach-to-drive-safely

Ad here is a link to original British story:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9787334/Want-to-drive-safely-Listen-to-Elton-John-Aerosmith-or-S-Club-7.html

radio dashboard

What do you think?

Will this research discourage you from listening to your favorite classical radio station or classic music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: NPR and pianist Stephen Hough offers a fine appreciation of the contradictory but life-affirming gay 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc on the 50th anniversary of his death.

February 10, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Francis Poulenc (below, a photo from Getty Images) remains one of my favorite 20th century composers.

Poulenc_1

His music is accessible and tonal, but distinctly modern. It is filled with wit and pathos as well as wonderfully bittersweet melodies and harmonies. And he wrote “crossover” before crossover was cool. He drew on the historical traditional of classical music but also on the French institution of the Music Hall.

Once treated as the buffoon of “Les Six” composers, he has proven the most durable of The Six, the one composer with the deepest talent and the most to say.

So I was particularly pleased to read the appreciation of Thursday, Jan. 30, the 50th anniversary of Poulenc’s death – the same day as the 216th birthday of Franz Schubert (below), another composer whose music is also so congenial and deep at the same time.

Schubert etching

There is something summery about Poulenc’s music, as I have written before, so thinking about him in deep winter is refreshing.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/classical-music-today-is-the-summer-solstice-and-nobody-wrote-better-summer-music-than-francis-poulenc/

The more recent appreciation — complete with a wonderful YouTube video clip from the Concerto for two Pianos — was written by NPR classical music blogger Tom Huizenga (below), who directs the blog “Deceptive Cadence.” It captures the contradictions and beauty of this unique composer and man who seems like he would be good to know as a friend.

Here is a link to the blog post:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/01/30/170662245/a-little-part-of-poulenc-in-all-of-us

huizenga_tom_2011

Here is a link to a wonderful appreciation by the gay British pianist Stephen Hough (below), who wrote it for his blog:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100067985/the-three-faces-of-francis-poulenc/

Hough_Stephen_color16

And here is one of my favorite pieces, his Novelette No. 1 for solo piano, with its poignant and charming neo-Classical or neo-Mozartean flavor, even down to the ornaments, as played on a YouTube video by Gabriel Tacchino along with the other two novelettes — the second one whimsical and the last darkly romantic. The triptych seems to capture the different sides of Francis Poulenc:


Classical music: Can music provide a kick as big or as good as drugs? The Ear says it depends on the drug and the music. But NPR blogger Tom Huizenga and some others think so. What do you think? Check out The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” production of “Maria Stuarda” today.

January 19, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is another Metropolitan Opera “Live in Hi Def” broadcast to movie theaters (at 11:55 a.m. CST at the Eastgate and Point cinemas in Madison).

The opera is Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role (below and at the bottom in a YouTube video of a previous production).

Here is a link with program notes and other information about the 3 hour and 15 minute production:

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/liveinhd.aspx

didonato

It has gotten good reviews. But none was better than the comments by Tom Huizenga (below), the director of and writer for NPR’s outstanding Deceptive Cadence” blog and some its readers. (Be sure to read the comments.)

huizenga_tom_2011

Huizenga compared the jolt he got during the production to the ecstasy of some drugs.

Well, music and opera are sure a lot healthier ways to get high, if a bit less intense.

But you can decide for yourself.

Read his remarks.

Then please offer an opinion plus any examples of classical music when you too were taken by music, carried away as if by drugs. Was it the piece? The performer? Special or personal circumstances you found yourself in?

Did you get a “sonic high,” if you will.

Here is a link to Huizenga’s posting:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/01/16/169551061/who-needs-drugs-when-you-ve-got-musical-ecstasy


Classical music: What New Year’s resolutions or wishes do you and other classical music fans and classical music makers have for 2013?

January 13, 2013
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

What should you wish for to benefit classical music in the coming year?

NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog put that question to two outstanding and Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary composers including Jennifer Higdon (below top, with her cat Beau) whose “blue cathedral” will be performed next weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Kevin Puts, below bottom, whose work the MSO has also performed), a producer, a performer, a presenter and a couple of bloggers.

Jennifer Higdon and cat Beau

Kevin Puts pulitzer

The answers are predictable, for the most part.

But I see that as a plus.

With such unanimity or at least agreement, maybe these wishes can come true – to the betterment of classical music — in the coming year and the years that follow it.

My favorite wish is asking people to forego recordings for live concerts. Very do-able, no?

But take a look for yourself.

Then let us know what you think.

And leave your own wishes or resolutions in the COMMENTS sections.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/01/09/168987190/symphonic-resolutions-whats-on-your-classical-music-wish-list


Classical music: Hallelujah for Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” So, what makes it great? Why and how does it work its magic? NPR answers those questions and more. Plus, you can listen to two versions — both Andre Rieu and a flash mob — of the great chorus.

December 24, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

HAPPY  CHRISTMAS EVE!!!!!!

It is just about impossible to imagine the holiday season without the “Hallelujah Chorus” by Handel (below), which has been a powerful and popular hit since it was first composed and performed.

handel big 2

This year will be no different.

The ‘Hallelujah Chorus” will be sung and listened to countless times in the coming day in private  homes, in houses of worship, in social institutions, even as a joyous food court flash mob proves (below), a video that has had over 40 million hits — so pass it on as a holiday gift!

But what is its hold on us and where does the hold come from?

NPR’s excellent classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” re-posts a “Performance Today” talk from 2008 in which Rob Kapilow answers those questions as part of an ongoing occasional series, “What Makes It Great?”

Now, some families observe the tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, and other open the presents on Christmas Day.

The Ear will do both for you.

So here is my Christmas Eve present – a close look at and listen to Georg Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” perhaps the most popular piece of classical music ever written for the holidays. (There will be another present to open on Christmas Day.)

Here it is:

http://www.npr.org/2008/12/23/98517850/the-pure-power-of-handels-hallelujah-chorus

What do you think makes the “Hallelujah Chorus” so great to sing and to listen to?

Happy singing! Happy listening (to the up tempo version below led by Andre Rieu that has had over 2 million hits)! And Merry Christmas!


Classical music: Holiday Gift-Giving Guide Part 5: Does Christmas these days bring fewer classical music albums to mark the holidays and offer as holidays gifts?

December 20, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

In the midst of the holiday gift-giving season – well, at least in the last-minute throes of it anyway – NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence” has raised an interesting and intriguing question that should engage all classical music fans at this time of the year.

Are recording companies offering the public fewer holiday-themed classical albums? (Below is a collage sampling of some classical holiday albums from recent years.)

holidayalbums

Some individuals (vocalists especially) and ensembles (choirs and orchestras especially) still do seem to offer holiday treats often, if not every year – though nowhere near the number of holiday albums that more popular genres such as pop and country manage to produce. Nevertheless, The Ear still thinks there is something to the accusation.

However, I would also add that in general, the industry probably has too many old-time recordings of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” or Handel’s “Messiah” or J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” or Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto – to take four prominent or well-known examples — to do some new ones. (below is a remastered classic 1959 version of Handel’s “Messiah” with Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.)

Messiah 1959 older version

Increasingly, I wonder, maybe the answer lies in more specialty titles of less well-known repertoire – perhaps pre-Bach early music or else Arvo Part-type contemporary music — that are not likely to be duplicates from the archives of earlier analogue and digital recordings.

Anyway, here is a link to the NPR story, with audio sample and links to holiday classical albums that make great gifts as well as reader comments:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/12/12/167061667/celebrating-the-increasingly-rare-classical-christmas-album

What do you think about the state of holiday recordings issued for the holidays?

The Ear wants to hear.


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