The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This Saturday and Sunday, the Token Creek Festival explores how an unrequited love for Clara Schumann helped make Brahms and his music autumnal

August 22, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johannes Brahms (below) remains the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use. This is due to his fastidiously high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players.

His music is universally admired for its combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact, ranging from the most muted private conversation to the most passionate and revealing passages he ever composed.

But putting aside his own personal temperament as well as his melancholy melodies, his bittersweet harmonies, and his masterful use of strings and woodwinds, what gives Brahms’ music that quality of sadness that so many listeners and critics describe as “autumnal”?

No discussion of Brahms can take place without engaging with the most important person in his life — Clara Schumann (below, in a  Getty photo), who was born Clara Wieck and became a virtuoso pianist and a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Brahms was deeply in love with Clara. But unfortunately she was married to Robert Schumann (below right with Clara), one of Brahms’ closest friends and most loyal promoters. Even after a mentally ill Robert Schumann died of suicide at 46, Clara remained loyal to his memory. For the rest of her long life, she performed, edited and promoted his music and rejected Brahms as a lover or second husband.

Almost overnight, Clara’s rejection seemed to cause Brahms to turn from a handsome young man (below top) to the more familiar figure of an overweight, cigar-smoking, bearded and prematurely old curmudgeon (below bottom).

Clara Schumann’s hidden presence is involved with all of the pieces on the Token Creek Festival program, which will be performed at 4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 25, in the festival’s refurbished barn (below) at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.

The program includes the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, illustrated with a performance of Brahms’ “Regenlied” (the “Rain Song” that precedes it and introduces the theme of the sonata); the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano in E minor; and the Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, a piece that retains its distinctive charge of unresolvable emotion. (You can hear that unresolved emotion in the beautiful slow movement of the Piano Quartet No. 3 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performers are violinist Rose Mary Harbison, co-artistic director of the Token Creek Festival; violist Lila Brown; cellist Rhonda Rider; pianist Janice Weber; and Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson.

THE REST OF THE FEST

Upcoming programs include “Words & Music,” a belated 80th birthday tribute to artistic co-director John Harbison, on Wednesday night, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The intimate program will include readings by poet Lloyd Schwartz, the premiere of new Harbison songs, plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg.

The festival closes with “The Piano” program on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, both at 4 p.m. The festival welcomes back pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer, here composers who were also formidable pianists:  Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Franz Liszt. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of John Harbison’s Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, complete the program.

For tickets ($32) and more information, go to www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.


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Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Jessica Johnson celebrates International Women’s Day this Friday night with a FREE recital of all-female composers and a special keyboard for smaller hands

March 6, 2019
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features Ukrainian pianist Yana Avedyan in solo works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Liszt. The program will include music from her upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall. The musicale runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

March is Women’s History Month, and this Friday is International Women’s Day.

To mark the latter occasion, Jessica Johnson, who teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she has won an award for distinguished teaching, will perform a program of all-women composers.

The FREE recital is this Friday night, March 8, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall. Johnson (below, in a photo by M.P. King for The Wisconsin State Journal) will perform works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, pairing works with interesting connections.

Here is what Johnson has to say about the program:

Dreaming, Op. 15, No. 3, by Amy Beach (below top) and The Currents by Sarah Kirkland Snider (below bottom) both feature beautiful lyricism and long-line phrases inspired by poetry.

“2019 is the bicentennial celebration of Clara Schumann’s birth, so I wanted to honor her and her tremendous legacy. Her Romance, Op. 11, No. 1, was composed in 1839 in the midst of the difficult year when Clara (below) was separated from her beloved Robert. (You can hear the Romance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazola (below) was written in 2013 for pianist Emanuel Ax as a piece that would appear on a program of works by Brahms. Mazzoli alludes to the romantic, stormy side of “pre-beard” Brahms, with exuberant floating melodies, hand crossings and dense layers of chords.

“Troubled Water (1967) by Margaret Bonds (below) is based on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” with hints of blues, jazz and gospel traditions throughout.

“Azuretta (2000) by Chicago-based composer, Regina Harris Baiocchi (below) describes Azuretta as a musical reaction to a debilitating stroke Dr. Hale Smith, her former composition teacher, suffered in 2000. The work honors his incredible legacy by mixing classical and jazz idioms.

“Germaine Tailleferre (below), the only female member of Les Six, the group of early 20th-century French composers, wrote her beautiful Reverie in 1964 as an homage to Debussy’s “Homage à Rameau” from Images, Book I.

“Preludes (2002) by Elena Ruehr (below) draw inspiration from Debussy’s Preludes, mimimalism and Romantic piano music.

“Also, as an advocate for the adoption of the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard — which offers alternatively sized piano keyboards for small-handed pianists  — I will perform on the Steinbuhler DS 5.5 ™ (“7/8”) piano keyboard.

“By performing on a keyboard that better fits my hands — studies suggest that the conventional keyboard is too large for 87% of women — and featuring works by female composers who are typically underrepresented in concert programming, I hope to bring awareness to gender biases that still exist in classical music.

“For more information about both me and the smaller keyboard, go to the following story by Gayle Worland in The Wisconsin State Journal:

https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/music/a-smaller-piano-for-bigger-artistry/article_38b80090-be0f-5050-9862-32c3c36c6930.html


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Classical music: The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra, with pianist Thomas Kasdorf, closes its eighth season impressively by shining new light on music by Schumann and Brahms

June 2, 2018
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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.

By John W. Barker

The amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below) closed its eighth season with another program of mainstream works. Maestro Steve Kurr clearly likes to challenge his players not only with demanding music, but also with works so familiar that audience expectations are extra high.

Of the two works presented, the first was the beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann. He wrote it for his wife, born Clara Wieck and an acclaimed pianist, to show off her talents. The soloist was the ubiquitous Thomas Kasdorf (below), a Middleton native and UW-Madison graduate who finds the MCO a wonderful platform in which he can have experience with a range of concertos.

Kasdorf is clearly working to make this concerto his own. He strove to integrate the polarities of melodiousness and showiness in the first movement, and seemed to have settled nicely into the extravagance of the final movement.

But it was the middle movement that intrigued me. (You can hear that movement, played by Sviatoslav Richter, in the YouTube video at the bottom.) Usually treated as a simplistic interval between the other movements, it emerged here as music of true delicacy, much of it a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. I daresay Kasdorf (below) will be able to make even more of this work as he grows in it, but he is off to a persuasive start.

The other warhorse — if you will — on the program was the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Kurr was the more daring in tackling it since the Madison Symphony Orchestra had already performed it just this past February. It is a deliberately monumental work, an ostentatious demonstration by Brahms that he had truly arrived as symphonist. Consequently, the composer made his players work hard to bring this off.

Though it sounds unfair, my initial grading would be an “incomplete”: a performance in the making. This was true certainly in the first movement, which did not yet have full coordination and coherence.

A major problem was the orchestra’s horn section. Brahms certainly wrote strong music for them in this work, but these players were occasionally inaccurate and, most damaging, far too loud and out of balance with the full ensemble. That distorted or undercut the performance all the way.

On the other hand, the string choir (below) continues to mature, and it delivered a very satisfying sound in the passages featuring it.

Most important of all, however, was Kurr’s interpretative approach, particularly in the second and third movements. These are usually presented as bits of superficial repose between the big flanking movements. But Kurr almost made them the genuine center of the work.

Taking much slower tempos than we usually hear, Kurr (below) turned the slow movement into a flow of beautiful sound, the third movement a subtly clever piece of whimsy. And the introduction to the finale, again taken more slowly than usual, unfolded with a powerful eloquence of its own, the more to pave the way for the Big Tune in the remaining body of the movement.

I am not sure I would advocate always treating Brahms’s First this way. But I salute Kurr for making me think anew about a score I had assumed I already knew well. He was able to lead his players, despite any shortcomings, in a performance of genuine artistic perceptions—an achievement in which this orchestra can take great pride.


Classical music: On Saturday, the UW-Madison hosts a FREE and PUBLIC day of workshops, master classes and performances for pianists and other keyboard players

March 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Attention all pianists– amateurs, professionals and students — as well as other keyboard players.

This Saturday brings the first University of Wisconsin-Madison “Keyboard Day.”  The focus is comprehensive, having the title “From the Practice Room to the Stage: The Pathway to Artistry.”(The official logo is below.)

pathways-to-artistry-logo

The underlying reason may be to attract and recruit talented undergraduate students to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. But the net effect is that a lot of wisdom about keyboard playing – from practicing to performing — will be on display to be shared with those who attend.

All events are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Steinway Grand Piano

The event takes place in Morphy Recital Hall from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Here is a schedule:

9:30-10 a.m. Coffee and Pastries (Mills Lobby)

10 a.m.-noon UW-Madison Keyboard Faculty Workshops

Strategies for Learning a New Piece with Professor Martha Fischer (below top) and Professor Jess Johnson (below bottom)

Getting Inside a Composer’s Head with Professor John Stowe

Beyond Repetitive Drilling: Custom Exercises for Every Difficult Passage with Professor Christopher Taylor

Mindfulness and Self-Compassion in the Practice Room with Professor Martha Fischer and Professor Jess Johnson

Martha Fischer color Katrin Talbot

jessica johnson at piano

1:30-3:30 p.m. Master class for high school students with UW-Madison keyboard faculty

Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 by Frederic Chopin; Yunyao Zhu, a student of Kangwoo Jin

Sonata in G major, Op. 49, No. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven. George Logan, a student of Liz Agard

Sposalizio, by Franz Liszt. Owen Ladd, a student of  William Lutes

Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, by Frederic Chopin. Jacob Beranek, a student of Margarita Kontorovsky

Morphy Hall 2

3:30-4 p.m. Reception in Mills Lobby

4-5 p.m. Recital featuring UW-Madison Keyboard Faculty

Sonata, Wq. 49 No. 5 by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). From Sei Sonate, Op. 2 (1744). John Chappell Stowe, harpsichord (below top)

Quasi Variazioni. Andantino de Clara Wieck by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) from Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14. Jess Johnson, piano. *Performed on a Steinbuhler DS 5.0 TM (“7/8”) alternatively-sized piano keyboard.

Don Quixote a Dulcinea (1933) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Poetry by Paul Morand. Paul Rowe, baritone, and Martha Fischer, piano

The Banjo by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). Christopher Taylor, piano (below middle). You can hear the piece in the YouTube video at the bottom. Taylor will also play “Ojos criollos” (Creole Eyes) and “Pasquinade” by the American composer Gottschalk.

Nature Boy by George Alexander “eden ahbez” Aberle (1908-1895) Johannes Wallmann, jazz piano (below bottom)

BATC2 John Chappelle Stowe and Edith Hines

Christopher Taylor new profile

johannes wallmann playing


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