The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What concerts or performances in 2019 did you most like, and do you most remember and want to praise?

January 12, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The concert season’s winter intermission will soon draw to a close.

So this is a good time to recall favorite concerts and performances of last year.

But let’s be clear.

This is a not a request to name “The Best Concerts of 2019.”

Calling them the most memorable concerts doesn’t necessarily mean they were the best.

Perfection or “the best” sounds so objective, but can really be quite personal and subjective. So much can depend not only on the music and the performers, but also on your own mood and your taste or preferences.

So please share the concerts or performances that you most liked and enjoyed, the one that most still linger in your mind. And, if you can pin it down, tell us why you liked them so much and why they linger for you.

There are so many excellent groups and concerts, so much fine classical music, in the Madison area that there should be lots of candidates.

Here are several performances or complete concerts that The Ear remembers with special fondness.

The MADISON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) held a season-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as its music director and conductor. The big event came at the end: Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” – that brought together the MSO and the MSO Chorus as well as the Madison Youth Choirs and the UW-Madison Choral Union.

It proved an impressive, overwhelming and moving display of coordination and musicianship, a testament to how far DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) has brought the orchestra.

(Also memorable on the MSO season were pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony during the MSO tribute to Bernstein, with whom DeMain worked closely.)

The WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (below, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under its veteran music director Andrew Sewell, continues to test its own limits and surpass them. Particularly impressive was the last concert of the winter season with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 featuring two outstanding soloists: soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass Timothy Jones.

The playing of the difficult score was precise but moving, and the singing blended beautifully. It made one understand why during this season – when the orchestra marks 60 years and maestro Sewell (below, in a photo by Alex Cruz) marks his 20th season — the WCO has deservingly graduated to two performances of each Masterwork concert (one here on Friday nights followed by one in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield on Saturday night).

Also memorable was an impressive concert by the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed MIDDLETON COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA. The Ear likes amateur musicians, and for their 10th anniversary concert they really delivered the goods in Dvorak’s famous Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” and, with fabulous guest soloist J.J. Koh (below — principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto.

But it wasn’t only large-scale works that The Ear remembers.

Three chamber music concerts continue to stand out.

During the summer, the WILLY STREET CHAMBER PLAYERS and guest UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (both below) delivered a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major that would be hard for any group to match, let alone surpass, for its tightness and energy, its lyricism and drama.

The same goes for the veteran PRO ARTE QUARTET at the UW-Madison, which this fall started its complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in the new Hamel Music Center to celebrate the Beethoven Year in 2020 when we mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The quartet played early, middle and late quartets with complete mastery and subtlety. Treat yourself. Don’t miss the remaining five concerts, which resume in February and take place over the next year at the Hamel center and also at the Chazen Museum of Art, from where they will also be live-streamed.

Finally, The Ear will always remember the wholly unexpected and thoroughly captivating virtuoso accordion playing he heard last summer by Milwaukeean Stas Venglevski (below) at a concert by the BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY. Venglevski performed music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla in a new and enthralling way.

Unfortunately, for various reasons The Ear missed many other concerts – by the Madison Opera and the University Opera among others – that promised to be memorable performances.

But perhaps you can fill him in as we start 2020 concerts next weekend.

What concerts in 2019 did you like most and do you most remember and praise? Why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Award-winning University Opera performs Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” this Friday night, Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday night

February 28, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The black-and-white poster (below) looks fittingly eerie, spooky and creepy for one of the most famous ghost stories ever written. Look carefully at the blurry outlines of people – or are they spirits? The ambiguity is deliberate.

uw-turn-of-screw-posyter-2017

The poster advertises the opera “The Turn of the Screw,” which was written in 1954 by British composer Benjamin Britten (below, in a 1968 publicity photo by Decca Records taken by Hans Wild) and is based on a famous gothic novella by the 19th-century American writer Henry James. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear an excerpt from the production at the 2007 Glyndebourne Festival.)

benjamin-britten-london-records-1968-hans-wild

The production of Britten’s last chamber opera promises to be exciting, engaging and innovative. That is thanks to the University Opera’s new permanent artistic director David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke DeLalio), a transplanted New Yorker who recently won national awards for two earlier productions at the UW-Madison when he was the opera company’s guest interim director for two seasons.

Below is a link to the complete story, with links to the awards story and other aspects. It also contains information about the cast and about tickets ($25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students).

The Ear wants to point out just a few important highlights:

Performances are in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, on this Friday at 7:30 p.m., this Sunday at 3 p.m. and next Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

After each performance, a talk-back for the audience to ask questions of the cast and the artistic staff will be held.

The running time is two hours with intermission.

The opera will be sung in English, but will also feature supertitles so the audience can easily understand the poetic libretto and follow the story.

The talented and experienced UW-Madison graduate student Kyle Knox (below) will conduct members of the UW Symphony Orchestra. Knox has conducted the UW Symphony and the University Opera many times before, and has also conducted for the Madison Opera and the Middleton Community Orchestra. Some mention him as a serious candidate to succeed his retiring and acclaimed teacher, Professor James Smith.

Kyle Knox 2

Here is the link to the full story, with many more details including cast members, on the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s website:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2017/01/31/university-opera-presents-benjamin-brittens-the-turn-of-the-screw/


Classical music: Does Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” reveal anything about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump”?

October 29, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

For generations, the conquests of the legendary Don Juan were treated as seductions.

But were they really rape?

The question is important in considering the masterpiece opera “ Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

don-giovanni-met-2016-simon-keeleyside

One blog writer for slate.com – Bonnie Gordon, who teaches a class on music and gender at the University of Virginia — draws a link between the charismatic historic nobleman and the current charges of “womanizing” and allegations of sexual assault made against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (below).

Donald Trump thumbs up

She doesn’t bring up whether the same discussion applies to former Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doesn’t seem a stretch.

She raises questions about what is sexual assault, seduction and rape – and how the definitions of a “rape culture” have changed over time and depending on whether it comes from a man’s or a woman’s point of view.

She pegged her essay to LAST weekend’s broadcast performance of the opera by “Live From the Met in HD” with Simon Keenlyside in the title role. In the YouTube video at the bottom, with English subtitles, Don Juan’s servant Leporello sings an aria about his master’s thousands of “conquests.”

But despite the week that has passed since the broadcast of the production, to The Ear the essay still seems relevant as the national election approaches.

Here is a link to that essay:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/10/21/what_don_giovanni_an_opera_about_a_charismatic_rapist_can_teach_us_about.html

What do you think about the essay and its main argument or point?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Let us now praise women composers — with the help of a new history and recent political events

June 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Politically, this has been a historic week and a week to remember for women.

Democrat Hillary Clinton (below), the former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State,  became the first woman to win the presidential nomination – barring something unexpected or a surprising turn of events – of a major political party in the United States.

hillary clinton thumbs up

That victory was soon followed by an endorsement from President Barack Obama and from another promising woman in American politics: Senator Elizabeth Warren.

So it also seems a good time to take a long look back to the 17th century and discover women composers who were overlooked and who failed to crack the glass ceiling of artistic fame or sexism in the arts in their own lifetimes.

They include the Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, the Romantic composers Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann (below top, in a photo from Getty Images), and the modern composers Lili Boulanger and Elizabeth Maconchy (below bottom).

(You can hear a lovely Romance for solo piano by Clara Schumann, a virtuoso pianist who championed the works of her husband Robert Schumann, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Clara Schumann Getty Images

Elizabeth Maconchy 2

The Ear doubts there is a better guide than Anna Beer (below top, in a photo by Jeff Overs) and her new book “Sounds and Sweet Airs: Forgotten Women of Classical Music” (below bottom):

anna beers CR Jeff Overs

Sounds and Sweet Airs

The historian and writer recently spoke with Rachel Martin of NPR or National Public Radio, about her history. Here is a link to the blog site, which also has links to related stories:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/05/22/478734604/sounds-and-sweet-airs-remembers-the-forgotten-women-of-classical-music


Classical music: Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson talks about the classical music he likes. It includes Schubert and Rossini, and Baroque composers Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli

January 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has been in the news this week as his campaign flounders with the loss of its manager, deputy manager and communications director, who all resigned.

A while back, The Ear complained about too little attention being paid to the arts by the candidates and questioners during the Republican and Democratic presidential debates.

Here is a link to the posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/classical-music-why-dont-the-presidential-debates-include-questions-about-funding-and-supporting-the-arts-and-humanities/

But now Dr. Ben Carson (below) – whose politics seem downright bizarre to The Ear – has indeed talked about classical music, including the music he listened to, and made others listen to, in the operating room.

Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH) - RTR3F2WE

Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

True, in this interview he doesn’t talk about funding the arts. And one must assume that his conservative, small government policies would probably undermine any support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

The Ear guesses, perhaps wrongly, that Dr. Ben Carson is or will be a defender of defunding.

But at least it is a start. And given his earlier comments and complaints, The Ear feels obliged to be honest and pass it along:

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/entertainment/arts/paul-hyde/2015/12/23/ben-carson-talks-love-classical-music/77836114/

And in honor of Carson — who especially loves the Baroque composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli — here is a YouTube recording of one of his favorites: the Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” by Franz Schubert as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the late music director and conductor George Solti:


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