The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to:

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:


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Classical music: UW-Madison piano students will perform a FREE concert of all 24 preludes by Debussy on Saturday night. On Sunday night, the Willy Street Chamber Players perform their summer preview concert

February 16, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

This is a busy weekend, especially if you are a fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. But two more events deserve notice:


This year is the centennial of the death of the pioneering French composer Claude Debussy (below). The event will be celebrated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music all day this Saturday.

That’s when the annual “Keyboard Day” will take place, with a focus on French music and general matters of technique and interpretation. It is called “Debussy and the French Style” and covers everything from the French baroque keyboard masters to modern music, including how to use songs and poetry as keys to a composer’s mind.

All events are FREE and OPEN to the public.

But the really appealing part for many promises to be a concert at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall. That’s when UW students, both undergraduate and graduate, perform the complete 24 preludes by Debussy, which are landmark works of the piano repertoire. (You can hear Lang Lang play the famous and popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It should be very memorable. The Ear remembers enjoying a similar event when students played all the mazurkas by Chopin and all the sonatas by Mozart.

Here is a link to the outstanding schedule of the events, workshops and master classes by faculty members, invited high school students and guest pianist Marina Lomazov (below), that start in the morning at 9 a.m. in Mills Hall:


On Sunday night, the critically acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below) will give their usual preview concert – a sampler of sorts — of their upcoming summer season.

The concert will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in A Place to Be (below), a cozy and intimately exotic venue,  at 911 Williamson Street on Madison’s near east side.

The program is To Be Announced, but the Willys have a great knack for combining older classics with new music.

Tickets are $20.

For information about the group and the concert, and to obtain tickets, go to:

Classical music: What music best expresses the “bomb-cyclone” and Arctic blasts?

January 6, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Weather-wise, the past couple of weeks have been unforgettable and, in many ways, unbearable.

First, around Christmas, we had one bitterly cold Arctic blast.

Then after New Year’s Day came the massive “bomb-cyclone” that brought snow and ice, high winds and flooding, to the East Coast all the way from Florida to Maine.

Next came another Arctic blast – that put most of the country into the deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures that broke records over a century old.

(How, The Ear wonders, does the Arctic blast differ from the Polar Vortex of a few years ago? And who invents such colorful names that certainly seem new.)

Such extreme wintry weather has brought misery, hardship and even death to wherever it struck.

With luck, the coming week will see a return to more normal temperatures and more normal winter weather.

Still, the past few weeks got The Ear to wondering: What music best expresses such extreme kind of winter weather?

The highly virtuosic and aptly named “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11, by Frederic Chopin came to mind. Its swirling notes suggest the howling wind and bitter cold while the minor-key melody has a certain dirge-like or funereal quality to it.

You can hear it played by Evgeny Kissin in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear is sure that many readers could suggest other musical depictions of extreme winter weather.

So please leave the name of the composer, the title of the work and, if possible, a link to a YouTube video performance at the bottom.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: NPR explores Opus 1 works to mark Jan. 1 and New Year’s Day

January 3, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, the media look for new ways to mark the holidays and especially New Year’s Day.

One of the best and most original The Ear has seen and heard in a long time came from National Public Radio (NPR).

On Morning Edition, the radio network consulted Miles Hoffman (below), a violist, conductor and educator, about the first works – the Opus 1 works – that various composers published.

Hoffman’s remarks touch on quite a few young composers and prodigies, including Ludwig van Beethoven (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below middle) and Ernst von Dohnanyi (below bottom).

Here is a link to the story, which should be listened to, and not just read, for the sake of the music and sound samples:

And from YouTube here are two more Opus 1 works that The Ear would add.

The first is the Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, by a young Frédéric Chopin (below, in a drawing from Getty Images) and performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. It shows just how early Chopin had found his own style and his own distinctive voice:

And here are the “Abegg” Variations by critic-turned-composer Robert Schumann (below), played by Lang Lang:

Can you think of other Opus 1 works to add to the list?

Please leave the composer’s name, the work’s title and a YouTube link to a performance, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: For you, what were the best, most memorable or most enjoyable concerts of 2017? Here are the highlights for critics John W. Barker and The Ear

December 29, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The end of the calendar year is only the mid-point of the new season and the concert calendar.

Still, it is a good time to take stock of the past year and the various performers and performances that we heard.

John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog as well as for Isthmus, recently published his top picks of concerts in 2017 in Isthmus. Here is a link to his year-end assessment:

To be fair, The Ear doesn’t always agree with Barker on the quality of some pieces and of certain performances. But by and large the two of us are in accord, and even when we aren’t, the Ear respects and learns from Barker’s expertise and experience.

The Ear would only add several things he found that Barker doesn’t mention:

The all-Mozart concert in the fall by the Pro Arte Quartet (below) — with UW faculty clarinetist Alicia Lee and San Francisco cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau filling in for Parry Karp, was a much-needed balm in these times of distress.

If you are a fan of amateur music-making and love the music of Bach, the revival of the Bach Around the Clock marathon in March proved enthralling. (Below are violist father Stan Weldy and mandolinist son Alex Weldy.)

You heard all kinds of musicians, from students and adult amateurs to professionals, in all genres of music, including arrangements and transcriptions that Johann Sebastian would no doubt have approved of.

Pianist Richard Goode (below), who played this fall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showed the power of softness and quiet.

His subtle playing was full of nuance in preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, by Johann Sebastian Bach; in a late sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven; in the only sonata by Anton Webern; in a generous group for Chopin works; and in an unexpected encore by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. All in all, Goode proved a wonderful reprieve from some of the heavier, louder and more dramatic keyboard playing we hear.

But if you wanted drama, you only had to attend the recital by UW-Madison virtuoso Christopher Taylor (below). He excelled in everything, especially the total-body playing of the solo piano arrangement by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which wowed the house. But he also showed great restraint, tone and subtlety in contemporary American composer John Corigliano “Ostinato” based on that symphony’s famous second movement.

Then Taylor finished up with contrasting sets of six Musical Moments by Franz Schubert and Sergei Rachmaninoff.


Recognizing that the best concert is not necessary the most memorable concert, and that the best or most memorable concert is not necessarily the most enjoyable concert, please tell us:

What did you think was the best concert and best single performance you heard in 2017?

What was the most memorable classical music experience you had in 2017?

And what was the most enjoyable classical music performance you heard in 2017?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Do you know the influence of classical music in the “Star Wars” movies?

December 18, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, the seventh and latest episode of the “Star Wars” movie franchise premiered and beat expectations.

Last The Ear heard, at the box office “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (below) grossed more than $220 million in the U.S. and more than $230 million internationally. That would make it the second most profitable movie opening ever.

So chances are good that many readers of this blog saw it.

But did they hear the influence to classical music in this and other “Star Wars” films?

If not, here is a link to a 2015 story, posted by radio station WQXR-FM in New York City, in which the film score composer John Williams (below) explains the connections he used.

Here are two hints: Tchaikovsky and Chopin.

Hope you enjoy it:

Of course, “Star Wars” is hardly alone.

The Ear thinks of the Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart in the film “Elvira Madigan.”

He also liked the way the used the Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven in “The King’s Speech.”

Do you have other favorite uses of classical music in films?

Use the COMMENT section to let us know the film, the piece and the composer with a link to a YouTube sample if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Master pianist Richard Goode performs music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Alban Berg in a MUST-HEAR recital this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 1, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

He may not have the instant worldwide name recognition and box-office appeal of, say, Lang-Lang or Martha Argerich.

But in The Ear’s book American pianist Richard Goode (below) is nonetheless a superstar.

That is because Goode is a chameleon in the best sense.

Whatever he plays — live or on recordings — feels as if someone with a deep understanding and a natural affinity for the unique qualities of that specific composer and work is at the keyboard.

His Bach always sounds so Bachian. His Mozart always sounds so Mozartean. His Beethoven always sounds so Beethovenian. His Schubert always sounds so Schubertian. And his Brahms – for which he won a Grammy – always sounds so Brahmsian. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Goode discuss how he deliberately chooses a selective repertoire that he can return to again and again.)

Whenever you hear Goode, you come away thinking, “Now that is  how the composer meant his music to sound.” Goode just disappears into the music.

Goode, who co-directed the venerable summertime Marlboro Music Festival for 14 years until 2013, always puts himself at the service of the music, never the other way around as so many other firebrand virtuosos do.

Goode, a shy man who collects books and fine art, is not given to flamboyance or theatrics. His interpretations always seem exactly right, never exaggerated and weird but both beautiful and emotionally convincing. He is, in short, a complete musician — recitalist, soloist in concertos and chamber music partner — and not just a great pianist. His is a quiet, self-effacing virtuosity.

You get the idea.

And you can sample such superlative musicianship for yourself this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. when Goode returns to perform a varied recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This is a performer and a program that no serious fan of the piano – professional or amateur, teacher or student — should miss.

On the program of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, are: a selection of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Alban Berg’s Sonata No. 1; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, which Goode, who has recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, says is his favorite; the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1, and the Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, by Chopin.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will deliver a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m.

Tickets run from $20 to $47.

Here is a link to more background and information about obtaining tickets:

Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: What is the one piece of music you could listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored?

September 2, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s Saturday —  time for another reader survey.

A few weeks ago, The Ear asked: Which composer or piece you really cannot stand or consider overrated, for whatever reason.

A lot of readers responded and their responses were very interesting, even unexpected. They included such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Scriabin and Mahler.

It was a question of personal taste and of course was subjective – like music itself.

Here is a link to that blog post:

Today, The Ear wants to know:

What piece could you listen to over and over and over again without getting tired or bored by it?

Of course, it may not have to do with the quality of the piece, but rather with how forcefully it speaks to you.

And the piece you name now may not be the one you would name next week or next month or next year.

Right now, for example, The Ear is on a kick with the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, by Chopin (below). He loves the work for its development and counterpoint as well as its titanic emotion, which is both Classically restrained and Romantically effusive. That’s why The Ear sees it as Chopin’s response to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata.

The Ear has tried to play the Ballade and loves comparing different interpretations. (You can hear it played by Arthur Rubinstein in the YouTube video at the bottom. And there are a lot other versions on YouTube.)

As to your choice:

It could be larger work like a Beethoven symphony or a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Verdi opera. Or it could be smaller work, like a Schubert song or a Bach prelude or a Puccini aria.

Anyway, let us know what piece you are focused on right now. It might even serve as a recommendation to other readers.

And in the Comment section, tell us what you like about it and why, and include a YouTube link to a performance if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Famed pianist Byron Janis reached out for Chopin. Did Chopin return the favor from beyond the grave?

August 28, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, The Ear posted a story by pianist Jeremy Denk that, to his mind, did the best job ever of explaining why the music of Frederic Chopin appeals so universally.

Here is a link:

Then more recently The Ear heard another story that involved the famed pianist Byron Janis (below), who studied with Vladimir Horowitz when he was a teenager.

He then went on to a spectacular virtuosic career before his hands were partially crippled by severe psoriatic arthritis. (You can hear him play less virtuosic music very poetically in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Through his piano playing and his library searches, Janis has reached out to Chopin, with some impressive results, including discovering lost manuscripts of famous waltzes.

But more surprising is Janis’ claim that, through a death mask, Chopin has returned the favor from beyond the grave and reached out to him in a paranormal or supernatural way.

The story was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR). It aired on the Saturday version of Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, and then was posted on the blog Deceptive Cadence.

Here is a link:

What do you think?

Do you believe Byron Janis’ story and explanation?

What do you think of his Chopin playing?

The Ear wants to hear.

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