The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Autumn arrives today. The Ear thinks Richard Strauss’ poignant orchestral song “September” is perfect for greeting Fall. What music would you choose?

September 23, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall officially arrives today.

The autumnal equinox takes place at 2:50 a.m. CST.

If you listen to Wisconsin Public Radio, it’s a certainty that you will hear music appropriate to the season. WPR does these tie-ins very well and very reliably — even during a pledge drive.

At the top of the list will probably be the “Autumn” section of three violin concertos from the ever popular “The Four Seasons” by the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

But there are lots of others, including late songs, piano sonatas and chamber music by Franz Schubert; slow movements from symphonies by Gustav Mahler; and many of the “autumnal” late works by Johannes Brahms, especially the short piano pieces and chamber music such as the Clarinet Trio, Clarinet Quintet and the two sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with more than two hours of autumn music. You can check out the composers and the pieces, some of which might be new to you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fddGrDV2gw

And if you want less music with some unusual choices, complete with individual performances, try this much shorter compilation:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/best-classical-music-inspired-autumn

Yet this time of year, when the days end earlier and the mornings dawn later, one work in particular gets to The Ear: It is “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss (below), one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.

The second of the four songs is “September” and fits the bill very nicely.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it sung by Renée Fleming, who will perform a recital next spring in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. She is accompanied by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

Here are the lyrics of the poem, in which summertime is the protagonist, by Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse:

The garden is in mourning

Cool rain seeps into the flowers.

Summertime shudders,

quietly awaiting his end.

 

Golden leaf after leaf falls

from the tall acacia tree.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,

at his dying dream of a garden.

 

For just a while he tarries

beside the roses, yearning for repose.

Slowly he closes

his weary eyes.

Is the Ear the only person who wishes that the Madison Symphony Orchestra and maestro John DeMain, who has a gift for finding great young voices, would perform Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” some autumn?

With the right vocal soloist it could make for a memorable season-opening concert.

What music do you identity with the fall season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain talks about the role of the piano in his career and his upcoming performances this weekend with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann songs and romances, and of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands.

June 19, 2013
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison and the rest of the world know John DeMain (below, in a  photo by Prasad) primarily as a symphony and opera conductor who is also the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But this acclaimed conductor, who won a Grammy Award for his recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and who conducted the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera, started his career as a promising pianist, as did many other conductors including Leonard Bernstein (with whom DeMain studied conducting), Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Eschenbach. Aside from the pipe organ, the piano is generally considered to be the most orchestral of instruments — so it really comes as no surprise that so many conductors started out as pianists. (To be fair, still other well-known conductors began as string or wind players.)

DeMain will return to the piano this weekend when he splits accompanying duties with pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), the co-founder and co-director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. DeMain and Jeffrey Sykes will perform jointly in Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann,” Op. 23, and will take turns accompanying other performers in songs and romances for flute. (BDDS is also performing  a second program of  songs and chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Ned Rorem, Frank Martin and Gabriel Faure.) 

Performances are on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Playhouse (below top) and on Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at the landmark and historic Frank Lloyd Wright compound Taliesin in Spring Green.

BDDS Playhouse audience

taliesin_hillside2

The rest of the “love triangle” program of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (both below) and Johannes Brahms includes many songs by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Brahms; Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano, Op. 94; Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano Op. 22. For more information about the program, performers and tickets, visit http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

DeMainOpera

Most of us know you as a conductor, even though you have played continuo and conducted smaller operas from the keyboard for the Madison Opera. You started out as a pianist. Can you tell about your time as a pianist from starting lessons through competitions and Juilliard and the decision to go into conducting?

I started studying piano at the age of six. I was a pretty good sight-reader and loved to accompany myself singing. When I was a senior in high school, I won the Youngstown Symphony Society’s piano competition, competing with college-level students.

After making my debut playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the symphony, I decided to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and studied for six years with Adele Marcus (below, as a demanding young teacher and performer). I played chamber music with the concertmaster of the Juilliard orchestra, and I won a competition in New York for young artists.

Adele Marcus

Why did you want to change from being a pianist to being a conductor, especially an opera conductor? (What are the comparative pleasures and pains of each, the piano and conducting?)

Conducting sort of coexisted side by side with playing the piano. I was conducting the grade school band in fourth-grade when the teacher didn’t show up. It came to me naturally.

While at Juilliard I took some elective conducting courses with Jorge Mester (below). I earned my tuition for Juilliard by conducting musicals for big summer stock theaters in the summer.

063040_PasadeSym_LKH_

After graduating from Juilliard, I continued to play chamber music in New York and played a few recitals. I always had a big love for the theater, opera and singing as well as the symphony orchestra.

Certain opportunities were presented to me in the field of conducting, starting with the Norwalk Connecticut Symphony, followed by a lengthy stint with opera for public television.

That, in turn, led to a summer studying conducting at Tanglewood, and to beginning my professional career at the New York City Opera as the second winner of the Julius Rudel award. (Below is a photo of Julius Rudel, the Austrian native who led the New York City Opera for many years and also guest conducted at the Met and elsewhere .) My duties included 35 hours a week of coaching and playing rehearsals. So the piano was always part of my professional life.

julius rudel

My next position was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (below) as associate conductor. In addition to conducting the orchestra on tour and having my own subscription concerts, I was playing chamber music with members of the orchestra on our chamber music series.

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

How did the piano affect your conducting and what did you bring to conducting from the piano? And inversely, what does conducting now bring to your playing the piano?

Playing the piano is a great aid in learning orchestral scores. One can study both the melodic content of a work, but even more importantly the harmonic structure of the music.

Conducting makes me aware of pulse when I’m playing the piano. And, of course, there is the imagining the piano part as though it would be orchestrated, much the same way we imagine the human voice singing an orchestral melody.

I think the life of a pianist can be more isolated, considering the many hours of practicing that is required. While studying orchestral and operatic scores is also isolated and private, there are so many rehearsals with the cast or the orchestra that makes for a more social experience. That seems to suit me better.

John DeMain conducting 2

I suppose the trite answer is we do something because we can. I love the big playground of opera and symphony, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But making music at the piano with fellow musicians is such an important part of a complete musical life.

In the orchestra world, we like to say that all music is chamber music. Listening to each other and responding accordingly is a great part of great orchestral playing. One develops this playing chamber music. Playing one-on one with your fellow musicians where everyone is equal. I feel blessed that I can participate in all of this from time to time.

Do have any comment about Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands, and other works you will be performing this weekend with Jeffrey Sykes for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society?

I certainly don’t play the piano publicly that frequently anymore, and I haven’t for years. But I thought this would be a rewarding experience, which is turning out to be just that. I have big respect for what Stephanie Jutt (who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and Jeffrey Sykes (below) have created. And I love Jeffrey’s pianism.

jeffrey sykes

The Brahms theme-and-variations (played by the Kontarsky brothers in a YouTube video at bottom) are rather extraordinary, and we are enjoying ourselves immense putting them together. They are harmonically quite daring at times, and of course deal in the finality of life as well. It should be an interesting concert.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS –- American composer Tobias Picker’s 1986 orchestral work “Old and Lost Rivers.”

June 8, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Regular readers of this blog know that The Ear is extremely choosy when it comes to new and contemporary classical music.

But actually I am also that way with older classical music – and often find attempts to revive so-called “neglected” works and composers an exercise is saving the second-rate.

Anyway, I want to give a shout-out to Lori Skelton, the radio host for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” (now over for the season) and for The Afternoon Concert that normally runs from 1:05 p.m. to 3 p.m. on WERN FM 88.7 in the Madison area.

In her programming and playlists, Skelton (below, seen in a WPR studio) often seems to emphasize unknown works and unknown composers, often ignoring just plain old beautiful masterpieces that are much better known.

Lori Skelton in studio

Now, I appreciate being exposed to and learning more about music I don’t already  know and that didn’t really survive into mainstream history. But often I am even more hungry for beauty than I am for novelty.

So imagine my delight when last Monday afternoon Lori Skelton programmed and played a relatively contemporary work (from 1986) by the living American composer Tobias Picker (below), who was born in 1954 and is probably better known for his operas.

Tobias Picker

It is a relatively short (about six minutes) and uncomplicated orchestral work called ”Old and Lost Rivers,” and it is simply beautiful, very listener-friendly and accessible. It reminds me a lot of vintage Aaron Copland with the open harmonies and flowing melodies that for me express a wistful and Midwestern blend of the modern and the nostalgic.

Picker wrote it on commission for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, which performs it in a YouTube video recording at the bottom under its former music director and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (below), who commissioned it and led the world premiere.

Christoph Eschenbach

I find it a haunting and contemplative piece, a work that is a balm at a time when so much contemporary music tries to be provocative and unsettling, music that tries to rile you up, to disturb and to challenge you.

So here it is and you really must hear it and listen to it –- NOT the same things.

The biggest puzzle for me is why I haven’t heard this lovely work sooner in live performances or even in recordings. If you read the intelligent listeners’ comments on YouTube, you will see you well received and how appreciated the work it.

Tobias Picker’s “Old and Lost Rivers” could become a very popular contemporary work if given a chance, both for professional music groups like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (even at Concert on the Square) as well for student groups like the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, the UW Chamber Orchestra and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO).

So listen to it, and then leave your own impressions in the COMMENTS section of this blog.

Be sure to read the listeners’ comments.

So thank you, Tobias Picker.

And thank you, Lori Skelton.


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