The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/ECMRecordsChannel

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

Advertisements

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org


Classical music: Let us now praise — and program — Lou Harrison, the prophetic American composer who pioneered both personal and professional diversity in music

May 20, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the name of Lou Harrison.

But he doesn’t recall ever actually hearing any music by Lou Harrison (below).

Maybe that will change, now that the centennial of Harrison’s birth is being marked.

Perhaps the UW-Madison or a smaller local group will do something, since neither the Madison Symphony Orchestra nor the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has programmed anything by Harrison in their next seasons.

The Ear certainly hopes to hear some of Harrison’s intriguing and prophetic music, which seems to be a harbinger of contemporary globalism and world music, performed live. Harrison’s work seems to presage Yo-Yo Ma‘s crossover and cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, but was way ahead of its time and without the commercial success.

In any case, it seems very few composers pioneered and championed both personal and professional diversity through Asian sounds and an openly gay identity. Completely genuine, Harrison seemed creative and imaginative in just about everything he touched and did.

If you, like The Ear, know little about the maverick Lou Harrison, an excellent background piece, recently done by Tom Huizinga of National Public Radio (NPR), is a fine introduction.

Here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/13/525919082/lou-harrison-the-maverick-composer-with-asia-in-his-ears

Harrison composed a lot of music, including concertos for piano and violin, that shows Asian influences and combines them with traditional Western classical music. Below is a YouTube recording of his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan from 1981-82.

Have you heard or performed Harrison’s music?

What do you think of it?

Would you like to hear it programmed for live performance more often?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,115 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 1,765,674 hits
%d bloggers like this: