The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music would you play to honor and mourn the dead, wounded and traumatized victims of the gay night club shooting in Orlando, Florida?

June 19, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been a week now.

A very long, hard and emotional week.

The Ear has heard some classical music dedicated to the victims — 49 killed, some 50 wounded and countless traumatized — of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Florida, that took place one week ago. (Below is a vigil in support of the LGBT community.)

Orlando shooting vigil crowd 1

Others might choose a standard like the famous “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. It is undeniably moving and perfectly appropriate.

But so far the piece that most moved The Ear, unexpectedly, was a familiar one that aired on Wisconsin Public Radio: the “Nimrod” variation from the “Enigma Variations” by Sir Edward Elgar.

The Ear hears tenderness, gentleness and even love in the music. But in it he also hears strength, resilience and pride as well as sorrow, acceptance and resignation.

Plus, he likes the idea of enigma that is attached to it, given all the issues and questions — terrorism, Islamic radicalization and extremism, homophobia, self-hatred, hate crimes, gun control, protests, mass grieving — that still surround the incident and remain to be solved.

You can listen to the piece of music in the YouTube video at the bottom that features conductor Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It has more than 3 million hits.

But The Ear is also sure that there is a great deal of other music that would suit the purpose. They include:

The passions, oratorios and cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Requiems of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi and Gabriel Faure.

The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky and Antonin Dvorak.

The string quartets, piano trios, duo sonatas and other chamber music by Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert as well as the solo piano music of Chopin, Schumann and so many others.

The masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The songs of Schubert and arias and choruses from all kinds of operas, but especially those of Giacomo Puccini.

And on and on.

Leave your personal choice, with a YouTube link if possible, and your reason for choosing it in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Easter Sunday is a fitting time to think about death, forgiveness and redemption — and about the Madison Opera’s upcoming premiere production of Jake Heggie’s famed opera “Dead Man Walking” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is Easter Sunday — a day when Christians and many others around the world think about the spiritual meaning of death, redemption and forgiveness. That also makes it an appropriate time to think about certain pieces of music — say, the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach — and certain operas. 

Take, for example, the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking.”

Later this week, The Well-Tempered Ear will feature interviews that arts critic Mike Muckian did with “Dead Man Walking” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. (Below in a photo by James Gill are Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the convicted killer facing execution Joseph DeRocher.)

PLEASE NOTE: The real Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion this Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

But on this special day, to whet your appetite and set the stage, so to speak, with basic facts, here is an official press release:

“The Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 25 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Sets and costumes come from the Eugene Opera’s acclaimed production in Oregon.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does carry a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language; it is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

The production is a Madison Opera and Upper Midwestern premiere, and “Dead Man Walking” is cathartic and humanizing, set to a stunning American score that ranges from hymns to zydeco.

With a libretto by Terrence McNally, “Dead Man Walking” is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, which also served as the inspiration for the critically acclaimed 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

The opera tells of a nun’s journey as the spiritual advisor of 
a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s death row. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that the San Francisco Chronicle says, “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption.”

At bottom is a YouTube video of the production by the Houston Grand Opera, where Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain worked before coming to Madison 20 years ago) with Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade and Philip Cutlip in the title roles.

Dead Man Walking is, for me, unquestionably one of the greatest operas ever written,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “When I saw it in 2002 at New York City Opera, I was completely blown away by its music, its dramatic power, and the sheer theatrical intensity that seared particular scenes in my mind for a decade. I am thrilled to produce it in Madison with this stunning cast, and particularly honored that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean are coming to Madison for opening night and to speak with our community the evening before.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Dead Man Walking” also has special significance to conductor and Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Harper Fritsch), who has a long history with the opera.

“From my very first encounter with “Dead Man Walking” at its 2000 premiere in San Francisco, I knew it was an opera for the ages, and one that I wanted to conduct and present to an ever-widening audience,” recalls DeMain. “I was fortunate to be able to create the second new production of the work, and conduct it in Orange County, Detroit, New York City, and its first international production in Australia.

“In every instance, this new opera connected viscerally with its audience for all the right reasons. It was a powerful, immensely moving drama with lyrical, memorable music, and a fine libretto. The playwright, Terrence McNally, knew exactly how to handle a sad and tragic situation with pathos, great humanity, and a wonderful sense of humor. “

John DeMain casual opera by Harper Fritsch

Maestro DeMain encourages local audiences, whether long-time devotees of opera or completely new to the art form, to experience “Dead Man Walking.”

“It is deeply spiritual, deeply moving, and deeply human with a score steeped in the American vernacular including the blues, which is so appropriate to New Orleans and the protagonist’s world,” he says. “This is a real opera that works the way all operas that we cherish work. Powerful arias, duets, and ensembles, sung by a variety of characters, all of whom we can identify with. I assure our Madison audiences that this is a riveting evening, a great moment in our history, and an occasion not to be missed.”

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Classical music: What makes for a really great holiday classical album? NPR asks a Grammy-winning expert. What do you think?

December 13, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

From now to the holidays, we are sure to hear a lot about specific individual recordings that merit your attention as holiday  gifts – from single CDs and DVDs to box sets with dozens of recordings, many of which have been featured here in the past couple of weeks.

But what goes into making a really great and really memorable holiday album?

holidayalbums

Of course, such things are easy to dismiss if you are a really serious “music lover.” But you know what? Many a lesser selling work has been financed by the profits from holiday recordings – and we are not just talking about “Messiah.”

Anyway, what makes for a get holiday album? That is the question that NPR’s terrific classical music blog, “Deceptive Cadence,” put to an expert from the industry who has won dozens of Grammy awards (below).

Now, one smart mouth reader said that all holiday albums boil down to Muzak or elevator music – “not just a melody but a management tool,” as the old motto put it.

I am not so sure, especially given the popularity of holiday-themed concerts. And if you think about it, holiday music is just another form of occasional music — like the wonderful “Pomp and Circumstance” marches by Sir Edward Elgar or the”Royal Water Music” and “Royal Fireworks Music” as well as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or “Gloria” by Antonio Vivaldi or all the cantatas and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

grammy award BIG

But here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/27/247348768/confronting-the-ghosts-of-classical-christmas-albums-past

What do you look for in a memorable holiday album?

Music that is new to you?

Interpretations that seem fresh?

A consistency of theme?

Do you have a favorite holiday album, and what is it?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Choral music is key to Johann Sebastian Bach as both man and musician, says expert conductor John Eliot Gardiner in his new book. You can hear the St. Thomas Church Boys Choir of Leipzig sing Bach this Sunday night at 7 in Luther Memorial Church.

November 2, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

To say that Johann Sebastian Bach loved choral music is something of an understatement.

This Sunday night, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., tomorrow night, you can hear some of that sublime music performed by the same boys choir that Bach himself (below) directed from 1723 to his death in 1750 at the Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. (The choir was founded in 1212. For more information, visit www.thomaskirche.org)

Bach1

Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Ave., will host the St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig during the first U.S. concert tour of its 800-year history. The choir will sing from the church’s rear balcony, just as it performs at St. Thomas.

St. Thomas Boys Choir

The program includes music of Bach (Cantata Nos. 196 and 150; and the Motet “Singet dem Herrn”); and Antonio Vivaldi (“Magnificat” and “Gloria”). All are masterpieces that have survived the test of time.

For tickets and further information go to: www.luthermem.org

Tickets are available for purchase online on the Luther Memorial website at www.luthermem.org via Brown Paper Tickets. You can select your seats from a seating chart of the church’s nave at $20, $30 or $60. (Below is the Luther Memorial Church interior.)

luther memorial church madison

But the music is about more than beauty, if you listen to John Eliot Gardiner (below), the distinguished British conductor of the Monteverdi Choir who has recorded all the surviving cantatas (about 100 of 300 were lost) after performing them around the world.

John Eliot Gardiner

This week, Gardiner published a book about Bach: “Bach: Music In the Castle of Heaven” (Alfred A. Knopf). It promises to be as important to Bach scholarship and studies as works by Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff, Albert Schweitzer and Philipp Spitta.

Bach Music in the Castle of Heaven

Gardiner also did a long, insightful and informative Q&A with Tom Huizenga, the director of NPR’s terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

The surprising interview includes sound snippets as examples, drawn from Gardiner’s extensive discography. And Gardiner even suggests which single cantata if the best one to listen to if you can only listen to one. (Can you guess which one? It is at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

It would be perfect to read or listen either before the St. Thomas Boys Choir concert or after.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/10/25/240780499/bach-unwigged-the-man-behind-the-music


Classical music: The Ear generally doesn’t like countertenors. Do you? Is it sexist or artistically wrong to prefer female singers to countertenors and to boy sopranos, especially in Bach cantatas. What do you say about the choices?

July 26, 2013
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

No doubt about it: Countertenors are once again cool.

Finally, after centuries of being ignored, slighted and downright ridiculed, countertenors are back in. They are mainstream these days and their numbers are increasing, as are their popularity and their quality.

When you plug the word “countertenor” into the YouTube search engine, you get more than 106,000 results. (At bottom is YouTube video of French countertenor Philippe Jarousskey singing a Vivaldi aria that has almost 2.5 million hits.)

On this past Thursday, NPR’s “Morning Edition” featured a terrific piece about countertenors with Miles Hoffman, the music commentator who is also a professional violist.

The report and commentary concerned the upcoming world premiere this weekend of the opera Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar,” based on the life and trial of Oscar Wilde, at the open air Santa Fe Opera (below).

santa fe opera house

The main point about the singing is that the lead role is played by the universally acclaimed countertenor David Daniels, for whom the opera was specifically composed. And Daniels (below, on the right, as Oscar Wilde in a photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera) has a voice that was described as “high” and heavenly.”

Here is a link to the story with audio clips of other performances by Daniels including music by Handel and Franz Schubert:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

oscr_0417

Now, I have heard a few countertenors, in live performances and on recordings, and there are times when I liked them a lot. I certainly was impressed by them and glad that they now have place in the mainstream of vocal music and opera.

The resurgence of countertenors over the past 15 or so year was inevitable, I suppose, given the revival of Baroque opera and especially the operas of George Frideric Handel (below), who usually wrote his high-pitched hero roles for countertenors.

handel big 2

In fact, here is a link to an earlier piece that NPR “Deceptive Cadence” blogger Tom Huizenga wrote about the Handel recording by another prominent countertenor Bejun Mehta (below):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2010/11/30/131701596/when-a-man-sings-like-a-woman-a-countertenor-convergence

Bejun Mehta

But I found myself disagreeing with Miles Hoffman (below) and others who think that countertenors somehow bring an added richness to the singing.

Miles Hoffman NPR

My ears tell me just the opposite. So now is a good time to files what appears to be a minority report.

I generally find the countertenor tone uncomfortable. In general, I find adult women’s voices or ordinary male tenors more convincing and expressive, less artificial and more normal to my standards.

I feel the same way about using boy sopranos in choruses of J.S. Bach’s cantatas. There are times when I love the sound of boychoirs and boy sopranos.

But even in period performances of early music – by far, my preference — Bach’s cantatas seem much more convincing and beautiful to me with a soloists and choruses of adult men and adult women.

Of course, we all live in history.

But the fact of the matter is that women were not used for singing not because high male voices were superior but because earlier epochs were heavily sexist and discriminated against women.

That is also, I believe, why the roles of young women in Shakespeare’s plays were usually played by young men. Women were simply not allowed full participation in the performing arts.

And although we may want to reconstruct such practices out a curiosity for historically informed performance and to hear how a certain piece of music originally sounded, I say that earlier periods – not ours – were the more deprived epochs.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing from readers and sophisticated fans of vocal music about whether my objections are misplaced and inappropriate, or whether they agree with me. Not that I expect the trend toward  using countertenors will abate. I am sure it will only grow.

In the end, I suspect, it was comes down to taste and personal preference – as is so often the case, given the inevitable subjectivity of art.

But let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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