The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf returns to sing on Sunday night with Chanticleer. Here’s how he got there with the right teacher, hard work, good luck and a push from mom. Part 2 of 2 

October 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday night, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the new Hamel Music Center, the a cappella singing group Chanticleer (below) will kick off the centennial anniversary celebration of the Concert Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Tickets are $45 for the public; $40 for faculty staff and Union members; and $10 for students. For more information about the performers and the “Trade Winds” program, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/chanticleer/

Among the 12 members of Chanticleer is Gerrod Pagenkopf, who is in his fifth year with the group as both a countertenor and the assistant music director.

For a biography of Pagenkopf, go to: https://www.chanticleer.org/gerrod-pagenkopf

Pagenkopf is a graduate of the UW-Madison. When he performed as a student, his high, clear countertenor voice was a new experience and made those of us who heard him sit bolt upright and take notice. “He is going places,” we said to each. And so he has.

But Pagenkopf’s story is not only about him. It is also about the rediscovery of countertenors, about the changing public acceptance of them, and about the challenges that young musicians often face in establishing a professional performing career.

So The Ear is offering a longer-than-usual, two-part interview with Pagenkopf (below).

Part 1 appeared yesterday. Here is a link: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/classical-music-uws-first-countertenor-gerrod-pagenkopf-returns-to-perform-on-sunday-night-as-a-member-of-the-acclaimed-choral-group-chanticleer-heres-how-he-got-from-here-to-there/

Here is Part 2:

Back when you were a student here, were you the only countertenor at the School of Music? How did you find out you were a countertenor and pursue that training?

As I recall, I was the only countertenor — certainly the only one studying in the voice department. I had been studying as a tenor with Ilona Kombrink (below, in photo by UW-Madison News Service) for a few semesters, and it just didn’t seem as easy as it was supposed to.

I didn’t sound like other tenors in my studio or on recordings. I remember that a famous countertenor had just come out with an album of Handel arias, and, upon hearing it, I thought to myself, “I can sing like that!”

I asked Professor Kombrink about it, and she told me to learn “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo” over the summer. When I came back in the fall, if it sounded legitimate she agreed I could pursue countertenor singing.

I remember that first lesson of the fall. After I sang this Handel aria for her, she sat back and mused in her sage-like manner, “Yes, this must needs be.”

I never looked back. I think I was on the early edge of the re-emergence of countertenors. Certainly there were countertenors working professionally, but there weren’t that many. There weren’t any other countertenors in Houston when I went to grad school, and even when I moved to Boston, there were only a handful of working countertenors.

Since then, how has the treatment of countertenors changed in the academic and professional worlds?

By the time I left Boston a few years ago, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a countertenor. We now see young countertenors winning major competitions and earning places in young artist programs around the country. The competition is fierce now.

I was lucky enough to be one of just a few fish in the pond, but now countertenors are everywhere—and a lot of them are really good! I also remember that there was a stigma so that it would be difficult to find a voice teacher who would teach countertenors.

A lot of pedagogy books by reputable technicians said that countertenors weren’t real — they just sing in falsetto, which isn’t a real voice. I was lucky that Professor Kombrink was willing to explore that with me. I think now that there are so many successful countertenors singing everywhere, I hope this antiquated view of the voice type has changed.

What would you like the public to know about the program you will perform here? Are you featured in certain pieces?

Our “Trade Winds” program explores several different aspects of the wayfaring sailor. They include Monteverdi madrigals about water and nature; a wonderful mass setting by a largely unknown century Portuguese composer, Filipe de Magalhaes; several charming folksongs from around the Pacific Rim; and even a few sea shanties.

It’s a varied program that includes repertoire from as early as the 15th century up to just a few months ago. One of Chanticleer’s missions is to further the art of live music through new compositions, and we’ve commissioned a fantastic young Chinese-American composer, Zhou Tian (below), to write a new multi-movement piece for us, entitled “Trade Winds,” from which our program also gets its title.

Lots of listeners are scared of “new music,” but Zhou has given us a gem. It’s easy to listen to, and I think listeners will instantly understand what it’s all about.

What are your plans for the future?

Personally, I can’t say that I have anything coming up. As wonderful as Chanticleer is, the job pretty much limits any amount of outside freelance work. (At the bottom, you can hear Chanticleer singing “Shenandoah,” its most popular YouTube video – and a piece with a prominent countertenor part — with well over 1.6 million hits.)

One of the truly fantastic parts of singing in Chanticleer (below, performing on stage) is all the places we travel to. We started off this season with a three-week tour of Europe, which was actually the ensemble’s third trip to Europe in 2019.

We love traveling around the U.S., and as I’ve said, traveling back to Madison is certainly the highlight for me. The Midwest is always a special place for us to sing, as several of our members are from this region.

We’re very excited to travel to Australia in June 2020. I think it’s Chanticleer’s first visit “Down Under.” We will also be going back to the studio in January to record a new album for release sometime later in 2020. We have lots of exciting events coming down the pipeline.

Is there something else you would like to say?

Prior to singing with Chanticleer, I had been living in Boston for almost eight years, pursuing professional singing as a freelance artist.

To make ends meet, I had been working at Starbucks, which I actually started doing when I still lived in Madison, and my gigging was getting lucrative enough that I eventually decided to take a leave of absence from slinging lattes.

While I was in Wisconsin on Christmas vacation, I received a message from Chanticleer’s music director, William Fred Scott, letting me know that there was an immediate vacancy in the ensemble, and would I be interested in singing for them.

I thought I was being spammed, so I didn’t respond, and continued to enjoy the bliss of spending the entirety of the holidays with my family.

When I eventually got back to Boston a few days later, another email arrived from Mr. Scott: “Did you get my email? We’d really like to hear from you.” Ok, how do I tell them I’m clearly NOT the countertenor they’re looking for?

Well, after much soul-searching, calling my mother (“Just do it!” she exclaimed), and figuring out the logistics of liquidating a one-bedroom apartment, I decided to run away and join the circus. It was a complete leap of faith, but I think I made the right decision.

Don’t give up on your dreams. Singing in Chanticleer was the first legitimate dream I remember having. Although my musical path took me in several other directions, that path eventually led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


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Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society closes its 28th season this weekend by honoring three guest artists. Plus, here are all the winners of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition

June 28, 2019
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ALERT: The Ear has been following two competitors in the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia who have local ties. (The only American to win Gold was cellist Zlatomir Fung.) The final results are in: trumpet player Ansel Norris took fifth place and received an artist’s diploma; pianist Kenneth Broberg shared the third prize with two other winners. For a complete list of winners in all the categories — piano, violin, cello, voice, brass and woodwinds — go to this page: https://tch16.com/en/news/

You can also watch and listen to, via live streaming, the two Gala Concerts for the winners today at 11 a.m. and on Saturday at 1 a.m. Valery Gergiev will conduct both. Go to https://tch16.medici.tv

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will close out its 28th annual summer chamber music season with concerts in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green.

Judging by the first two weekends of concerts, The Ear expects it to be a memorable conclusion of the season with the punning theme of “Name Dropping.”

Here is the announcement he received.

“Our third week of concerts celebrates three great musicians, all of whom are audience favorites: cellist couple Anthony (“Tony”) Ross and Beth Rapier; and firebrand violinist Carmit Zori.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” is a program centered around cello duets. Rapier and Ross (below), principal and co-principal cellists with the Minnesota Orchestra, start the program with George Frideric Handel’s gorgeous Sonata in G minor for two cellos and piano. (You can hear the Handel sonata, payed by Amit Peled in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They both display crazy virtuosity in Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in B-flat Major for flute, violin, viola and two cellos.

The first half ends with Gian Carlo Menotti’s Suite for two cellos and piano, a work that they have performed to acclaim around the world.

The second half of the program is given over to one of Brahms’ greatest works, the Sextet in G Major, Op. 36, for two violins, two violas and two cellos.

Ross and Rapier are joined by violinists Carmit Zori and Leanne League (assistant concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) and violists Toby Appel (below, a faculty member at the Juilliard School who plays in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) and Katrin Talbot (a Madisonian who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) in this spectacular piece.

“And the Tony Award for Rapier Wit goes to…” will be performed at the Stoughton Opera House on Friday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin on Sunday, June 30, at 2:30 p.m.

Firebrand violinist Carmit Zori (below), founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society in New York City, will sizzle her way through the second program, entitled “The Legend of Zori.”

The program will open with Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in G Major for violin and piano. Viaje, by living Chinese composer Zhou Tian, is a fun and exciting new piece featuring flute and string quartet.

Zori will bring the program home with the torridly passionate Piano Quintet in F minor by Cesar Franck (below), a work written while Franck was in the throes of a love affair with one of his young students.

“The Legend of Zori” will be performed at The Playhouse at the Overture Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m.; and in Spring Green at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin, on Sunday, June 30, at 6:30 p.m.

Venue Locations: the Stoughton Opera House is at 381 East Main Street; the Overture Center in Madison is at 201 State Street; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Hillside Theater in on County Highway 23 in Spring Green.

Single admission tickets start are $43 and $49. Student tickets are always $10. All single tickets must now be purchased from Overture Center for the Arts, www.overturecenter.org or (608) 258-4141 (additional fees apply) or at the box office. Tickets are available at the door at all locations.

You can also enjoy a pre-ordered picnic at the Hillside Theater made with love from Pasture and Plenty, using ingredients from local farmers and producers. They are available for pick up at the Hillside Theater after the 2:30 p.m. concert or before the 6:30 p.m. concert, for $18.

Spread a blanket on the beautiful Hillside Theater grounds or eat in the Taliesin Architecture School Dining Room, which will be open exclusively to BDDS concert-goers.

Choose from Green Goddess Chicken Salad, Market Veggie Quiche with Greens, or Hearty Greens and Grains with Seasonal Veggie Bowl (gluten-free/vegan). Seasonal sweet treat and beverage included. See the BDDS order form or call BDDS at 608 255-9866.


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Classical music: Madison native and virtuoso trumpeter Ansel Norris has made it to the final round of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition. You can hear him perform live on Thursday morning or in replay

June 26, 2019
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A REMINDER and CORRECTION: American pianist Kenneth Broberg, who performed last season in Madison on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, will be the last finalist – not the second-to-last – in the final concerto round of the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition. The pianist from China that was to play after him played yesterday instead.

Broberg will play the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, by Tchaikovsky. You can watch his performance live  still on Thursday morning at 11:45 a.m. by going to https://tch16.medici.tv/en/ and clicking on PIANO LIVE or REPLAY after the performance.

By Jacob Stockinger

This news came to The Ear late or he would have passed along more information much earlier.

Ansel Norris (below), a 26-year-old Madison native and virtuoso trumpeter, has made it as one of the nine finalists — the contest started with 47 contestants in trombone, French horn, trumpet and tuba — in the first-ever Brass Competition at the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition.

You can hear Norris perform live on Thursday morning at 7:45 a.m. via live-streaming or afterwards via replay. Just go to https://tch16.medici.tv/en/

Then click on BRASS and choose WATCH or REPLAY.

You can also listen to his earlier performances.

Here is a link to his performance in the first round, when he played a concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn plus works by Allen Vizzutti and Georges Enescu:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/replay/first-round-with-ansel-norris/

And here is a link to his performance in the semi-final round, where he played concertos by Johann Friedrich Fasch and Vladimir Peskin — you can hear a much younger Norris play the first movement with piano in the YouTube video at the bottom —  as well as a solo competition piece by Théo Charlier:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/replay/semi-final-with-ansel-norris/#filter?instrument=brass

His performance in the finals, with an orchestra in St. Petersburg instead of Moscow, will take place on Thursday, June 27, at 7:45 a.m.

He will play Lensky’s aria “Where, Where Have You Gone?” from the opera “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky and the Trumpet Concerto by Rodion Shchedrin. Playing opera arias and art songs on the trumpet is a Norris specialty.

Norris, a graduate of Northwestern University who was also a member of the well-known New World Symphony in Miami, studied with John Aley, University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor and Principal Trumpet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and played for many years in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.

Norris is the son of Katherine Esposito, the concert manager and publicity coordinator at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here is a link to the more complete and current biography posted by the Tchaikovsky Competition:

https://tch16.medici.tv/en/competitors/ansel-norris/


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Here is a news update on American Kenneth Broberg and the six other finalists in the piano concerto round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition on medici.tv for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

June 24, 2019
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Here is a news update on the final round of the piano contest at the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow:

The Ear still hasn’t seen word about the specific repertoire, besides the required Tchaikovsky concerto, that seven finalists in the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition will perform this week.

However, they will take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at approximately 10 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. with an extra session on Thursday at 2 p.m., CDT.

American pianist Kenneth Broberg (below, in a photo by Jeremy Enlow), who played in Madison last season at the Salon Piano Series held at Farley’s House of Pianos, will perform second-to-last on Thursday, June 27, at 11:45 a.m.

The Ear is guessing that he will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which is what he played at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition where he captured the silver medal.

Stay tuned!

Here is the complete schedule for the final concerto round, which will be live-streamed on TCH16.medici.tv .

Tuesday is Russian Konstantin Emelyanov at 10 a.m. and Russian Dmitry Shishkin at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday is Chinese An Tianxu at 10 a.m. and Russian Alexey Melnikov at 11:45. Thursday is French Alexandre Kantorow at 10 a.m. and American Kenneth Broberg at 11:45 a.m.; and Japanese Mao Fujita at 2 p.m.

Here is a link, or go to PIANO on the home website and click on WATCH: https://tch16.medici.tv/en/piano/

You may experience some delays or temporary disruptions in the live-streaming. Medici.TV says that so far the competition has had more than 10 million views from more than 180 countries, and the online service is struggling to fix outage problems. 


Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Organist and composer Chelsea Chen debuts at Overture Hall on Tuesday night

February 18, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Organist Chelsea Chen (below) makes her Madison debut on this Tuesday night, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall as part of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Organ series.

Ticket information is below.

Chen brings to her Overture Hall premiere an array of widely known classical pieces plus her own original composition.

Chen’s performance begins with Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta and Edvard Grieg’s First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46— continuing with Chen’s original work, the Taiwanese Suite, Camille Saint-Saens’ Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3, Ad Wammes’ Miroir, and finally, selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Composer Gjeilo (below) has praised Chen’s interpretation of Sinfonietta, which the organist has performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

The First Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46, by Grieg is one of the most easily recognizable compositions within the musical art form. Subtitled “Morning,” it is the first of two suites that Grieg (below) transcribed from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 Norwegian play Peer Gynt.

The opus, albeit a short first movement from the suite, intends to instill imagery of the sunrise over the North African desert. Despite this, it is more commonly associated with the sweeping mountains, fjords and lakes that mark Norway’s landscape.

Chen’s own Taiwanese Suite combines the dynamic range of the organ with inflections of traditional Asian folksongs. It is composed of three movements: “Hills in the Springtime,” “Moonlight Blue” and “Mountain of Youth.”

Inspired by the works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and others, Saint-Saens (below) composed a variety of arrangements and selections for numerous occasions. By age 10, the French composer and child prodigy had given his first concert. His Finale from “Organ” Symphony No. 3 is, as some consider, the pinnacle of his body of compositions. (You can hear Chen’s playing of the Finale from the “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Miroir was composed by Dutch composer Ad Wammes (below) for Stephen Taylor to celebrate the organist’s appointment to the Nicolaïkerk, a church in the Netherlands. In an unconventional mirroring — hence the title — the right hand repeats the higher voices in the same pattern throughout the song, whereas the left hand varies texture, voice and tone in the lower registers. The result is a calming, low hum that is lifted by the glistening echoes of the upper registers.

To Holst, The Planets suite could be framed as “a series of mood pictures,” with its seven movements. Ironically, Holst (below) seemed to heavily dislike his explosive popularity resulting from the suite’s compositional structure. Despite his supposed negativity towards the piece, its inherent superb qualities of each movement — no two are alike — became a staple of evocative composition.

Following an academic career at the Juilliard School and Yale University, Chelsea Chen has practiced under the tutelage of known names in the musical world, such as Paul Jacobs and John Weaver. For more information about her, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/chelsea-chen/

Single Tickets are available for $20 each and can be purchased online at http://madisonsymphony.org/chen, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two tickets for $10 each. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/studentrush

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

This performance is sponsored by Friends of the Overture Concert Organ (below) that was custom-built by Klais Orgelbau of Germany. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ.


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Classical music: The talented new director of the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble sets the acclaimed and still impressive group on a new path with mixed results and hopeful expectations

August 9, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Isthmus Vocal Ensemble (IVE, below) is a well-established part of Madison’s musical summers. It offers dedicated choral singers a chance for intensive rehearsal preparation of highly accomplished choral music, and has delivered some truly memorable events over the years.

Of its concerts this year, I caught the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The choir itself doesn’t need to be shown off by now, but it was the choir’s chance to show off its new conductor in his first appearance here.

Michael McGaghie (below) is that new conductor. He is very plainly a brilliant choral technician who knows how to make a choir sound wonderful. (For more about McGaghie, who is the Director of Choral Activities at Macalester Collge in St. Paul and who leads the Harvard Glee Club Alumni Chorus in Cambridge, Mass., go to: https://www.isthmusvocalensemble.org/artisticdirector/)

That he did throughout the program. The IVE — 69 singers strong — certainly responded with an infectious enthusiasm that was also communicated to the large audience that filled the Christ Presbyterian Church.  The concert was certainly a feast of great choral singing.

But what about the music?

To begin with, the actual music amounted to no more than about an hour’s worth. McGaghie planned the program as a progress of emotional moods, and he introduced each piece himself.

But what were the contents? McGaghie largely turned his back on the centuries of great choral music, the kind that his predecessor Scott MacPherson explored so ambitiously.

There were, at the beginning, two examples of that, motets by Thomas Tallis of the 16th century and Heinrich Schütz of the 17th century.

There was also an interesting nugget from the Russian composer and conductor Nikolai Golovanov (below), an early work of his (1917), setting the Lord’s Prayer (Otche naš) In a style departing from the previous two centuries of great Russian Orthodox choral writing.

Beyond those, however, the remaining nine items in the program — and the encore — were entirely by recent composers, mostly living and mostly American. These were his introductory calling cards, and so they invite scrutiny.

Ours is not an age of great, idiomatic choral writing, and composers go their own ways variously. Many of them rely upon a kind of chordal declamation with little sense of line or full-bodied texture.

Some pieces I don’t think I would want to hear again, and a couple I would not have wanted to hear even the first time.

An example of the latter is a piece about sirens and sailors by Chinese-American Chen Yi (below top), a collage of weird choral sounds but no musical content recognizable to any but Chinese ears.

Another was a loudly trashy adaptation of a Civil Rights “freedom song” by Jeffrey Douma (below bottom), plus the gesture to multicultural triviality in a Philippine folksong arrangement.

Three of the items came with piano accompaniment. In The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore (below top) — which uses a text from Anne Brontë — the piano gave an underlying ripple to support declamatory, non-linear writing.

In Eternity by Donald Martino (below), the pleasantly lyrical choral writing really didn’t need the piano at all.  And that part was much too prominent against Morten Lauridsen’s nicely polyphonic, and quite self-sufficient, choral texture in “Sure on This Shining Night” that treated James Agee’s famous poem. (You can hear the Lauridsen work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

There were certainly some among these contemporary items that I found quite enjoyable.

In Ophelia, a setting the account of that woman’s death in Hamlet, Jocelyn Hagen (below top) was overly concerned with story-telling, but the work certainly contained some lovely writing. O Radiant Dawn by Scottish master James MacMillan (below bottom) was a beautifully sonorous tribute to Catholic liturgical tradition.

What does this conducting debut point to for the future?

McGaghie can create the most splendid choral beauty — though often at the sacrifice of clear diction. On the basis of this program, it looks like he could now focus the IVE on lots of short contemporary pieces, rather than on the vast traditional literature.

We will have to see.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Here is how Chopin’s famous “Fantaisie-Impromptu” sounds – and looks

March 29, 2018
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most popular pieces in the piano repertoire is the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” in C-sharp minor, Op. 66, by Frederic Chopin (below).

Chances are good that you already know how it sounds.

But it case you don’t, here is one popular interpretation – with almost 9 million views – thanks to a YouTube video by the Chinese pianist Yundi Li (now known simply as Yundi). In 2000, at the age of 18, he became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition.

And here is how it looks in an arresting, artistic and ingenious graphic display that might help you to understand the work structurally, rhythmically, melodically and harmonically:

Do you have any reactions to the playing and the seeing?

Do you want to see more of such graphic interpretations? Of what specific pieces?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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