The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: This 90-year-old Belgian classical pianist learned how to play slow movements by Mozart and Beethoven by hearing Ray Charles – and shows why The Ear likes the arts reporting on PBS and NPR

January 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, I posted a disconcerting story from the Columbia Journalism Review about how most mainstream newspapers and traditional media are cutting way back on art coverage.

After all, runs the conventional wisdom, how can the arts compete with sports, politics and crime for attracting readers?

Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/14/classical-music-newspapers-and-media-continue-to-cutback-on-arts-writers-and-arts-critics-what-is-the-effect-on-the-arts/

Well, that kind of mistaken thinking is one reason why The Ear likes to watch PBS and national Public Radio or NPR. Especially on the PBS NewsHour, you find terrific stories about and interviews with major figures in the fine arts and the performing arts.

PBS treats the arts as vital and essential, not ornamental or secondary.

A wonderful example happened this week on the segment called “Brief But Spectacular” in which people offer their thoughts about their own lives and careers.

In this case, it was Jean Stark — a 90-year-old Belgian-born woman who was an accomplished concertizing classical pianist. She performed in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York City, and in halls around the world, and who talks about her life and career for PBS.

jean-stark

In the four-minute interview, she laments how classical music isn’t promoted these days and emphasizes how wonderful it was to be alive during the golden years of classical music with such great figures as composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But, she confesses, for all her accomplishments she was unsatisfied with how she played slow movements of sonatas by Classical-era masters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

stark1-320x196

Until she came to the U.S. and went with a friend to a concert by Ray Charles.

Charles, she says, taught how to play slowly.

The Ear only wishes she had been more specific about the lessons she learned. Was it phrasing? Tempo? Accents? “Rubato,” or flexible timing?

It is a great, heart-warming story and typical of the kind of human interest arts coverage that you generally do not find on other television news channels, whether traditional networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX or cable TV channels such as CNN and MSNBC.

So The Ear offers it as both an enjoyable and informative arts story, and as an endorsement of the PBS NewsHour and especially reporter Jeffrey Brown, who does such a terrific job of reporting on the arts.

Here is the segment, which you can find on YouTube, along with other recordings by Stark:

An after-thought: To the best of his knowledge, The Ear thinks that the music you hear her playing is the “Aeolian Harp” Etude in A-Flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1, by Frederic Chopin and part of the suite “Pour le piano” (For the Piano) by Claude Debussy.

What do you think of arts coverage on the mainstream media and on PBS?

What do you think Jean Stark learned from Ray Charles?

If you saw this story, how did it affect you?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Newspapers and media continue to cut back on arts writers and critics. What is the effect on the arts?

January 14, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got a message from an old friend who gave him a link to a story about the decline of arts criticism in the mainstream media.

“This is not big news to you, but an interesting update that puts the value of your blog in context,” the friend said.

The Ear thinks that the cutback in arts critics hurts local performing artists and also hurts readers who consume the arts as audiences. That is especially important in a city as rich in the arts for its size as Madison. (Below is the Madison Symphony Orchestra playing for a full house.)

MSO playing

Here is a link to the article from the Columbia Journalism Review:

http://www.cjr.org/the_feature/arts_music_critics.php

The story earned an interesting response, sort of a constructive dissent from most judgments, from Anne Midgette (below), an arts writer and arts critic who used to work for The New York Times and now works for The Washington Post. Here is a response she posted on Facebook:

“There’s one thing missing from this thoughtful valedictory on newspaper arts writing – the outrage about cutting critics is all very well, but one reason they get cut is that they don’t always have the readership papers want/need (which can be quantified now better than it used to be).

“I think newspapers could help remedy that by putting in more resources and figuring out a strategy for raising the profile of arts writing (and I think arts writers need to focus on thinking about fresh innovative ways to write about their fields, but that’s another story).

“In any case, I think those of us who love the arts need to recognize this as a big factor in the cuts, rather than simply wringing our hands about living in a world of Philistine editors.”

Anne Midgette BIG

What do you think of Anne Midgette’s response? How would you like arts coverage changed and improved?

How good a job do you think the local media do in covering the arts?

What do you think about the overall reduction in arts coverage?

Have you found alternative sources for news and for information, and what are they?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Meet J’Nai Bridges who went from the dream of playing professional basketball to the reality of singing professional opera

January 13, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baseball season is done.

Football season is almost over.

Basketball season is here.

So it seems an appropriate time for The Ear to share a great story about sports and classical music that he recently saw on the PBS NewsHour.

It is also a good story about good luck to run today, on Friday the 13th, a date that is traditionally synonymous with bad luck.

The story concerns J’Nai Bridges (below) who started out wanting to be a professional basketball player.

jnai-bridges

That dream fell apart dramatically and suddenly — though she doesn’t reveal if it was an injury or some other cause.

But then good luck unexpectedly stepped in.

During her senior year in high school, she signed up for choir as an elective and her teacher immediately recognized her gift.

She started late, but she had the right attitude to stay open to new discoveries and new possibilities.

Turns out she possesses a world-class mezzo-soprano voice. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Bridges singing an aria from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet .)

And now she has gone on to a career in opera and is a rising star singing major roles in major opera houses around the world.

The Ear thinks that Bridges’ words reflect wisdom that others should share in.

For one, her moving story also highlights the importance of a liberal arts education, where you can try out many different subjects you have no idea about and see what you like and how you do. That gives students a chance to explore their untapped interests and potential.

It also runs contrary to some of the current politicians who want to reform secondary and higher education into a kind of trade school or vocational training ground for work and careers.

It also is a fine summary of the role that music plays both for the performer and for the audience.

Here is a link to the moving and informative story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports-gave-way-singing-rising-star/


Classical music: After six years of success, “Grace Presents” — a series of monthly FREE concerts at noon on Saturday — has been suspended indefinitely

January 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The “Grace Presents” series of FREE monthly Saturday noon concerts has been suspended indefinitely.

The series presented folk music, jazz, ethnic, country and other genres in addition to classical music.

Grace Presents sign

The Ear feels sorry about the unfortunate move, but offers kudos and thanks for a job well done. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the Liebeslieder Waltzes by Johannes Brahms sung at Grace Presents.)

Over several years, he has heard memorable performances of sonatas and suites, cantatas and preludes, of vocal, string and piano music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and other composers. Included here are some photos of past events.

The concerts – held in the wonderful interior (below) of Grace Episcopal Church on the downtown Capitol Square — always attracted a large, friendly and appreciative crowd, and the series became a showcase to spotlight some performers who have a lower profile, including graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

grace episcopal church ext

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

MBM Grace stained glass window

No specific reason for the action was given, and The Ear wonders if it had to do with finding financial sponsors or perhaps with the difficulty of booking performers in a city with such competitive programming of music.

It was not an easy job to set it up and keep it running. So The Ear offers congratulations and thanks to the many people who made the series successful for many years. (Below are violinist Laura Burns, who plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Rhapsodie Quartet, and pianist Jess Salek, who teaches and performs with the Mosaic Chamber Players and the Madison Youth Choirs.)

Laura Burns Jess Salek Brahms Grace Epis

Here is the official statement:

Dear Grace Presents Community:

After six seasons of offering free community concert programming monthly at the historic Grace Episcopal Church, the Grace Presents Concert Series has been suspended indefinitely.

From performers such as Yid Vicious, Kenn Lonquist, The Dang-It’s, the Madison Bach Musicians (below) and so many others we have enjoyed presenting these concerts free of charge to the Madison community and the thousands of downtown Madison visitors.

MBM Grace cantatas singers 2

It is our hope that this concert series may find a champion in the near future, but until then, the red doors will no longer be open on Saturdays for free concerts to the public.

Thank you for your support of this series and local musicians. (Below is pianist Yana Groves who played music by Bach and Rachmaninoff at Grace Presents).

Most Sincerely,

Grace Presents Board Members

Yana Groves 1

PS: Thank you to the following:

– Bruce Kasprzyk for recording dozens of our concerts and providing his services free of charge

– Oakwood University Woods for printing our programs each month

– Bruce Croushore for initiating the Grace Presents Concert Series seven years ago

– folks who have served on the Grace Presents board

– over 100 musicians who performed for a Grace Presents concert

– all of you who have attended and supported live music at Grace Church

We especially thank our many donors and supporters over the years, and in particular Dane Arts, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, the Madison Arts Commission, and the Wisconsin Arts Board


Classical music: Musicians have four times the risk of hearing loss, study shows. Plus, pianist Mark Valenti plays a FREE recital of Brahms, Debussy and Mendelssohn at noon on Friday

January 11, 2017
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianist Mark Valenti playing music by Szymanowski, Brahms, Debussy and Mendelssohn. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

It isn’t new research.

But The Ear stumbled on it and finds it no less compelling or convincing because it is a couple of years old.

Researchers say that musicians run four times the normal risk of hearing loss.

But they also point to things that can be done to lessen the risk.

Whether you are a professional musician, an amateur musician or an avid listener, you might want to read about this research.

So here is a link:

https://theconversation.com/musicians-at-high-risk-of-hearing-loss-but-the-show-can-go-on-26134

orchestra-and-deafness


Classical music: Georges Prêtre, the French conductor Vienna adored, has died at 92

January 10, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Vienna has been called “The Paris of the Reich.”

Perhaps that is why the Viennese took such a liking to the suave and debonair French conductor Georges Prêtre (below, in a photo by Dieter Nagli for Getty Images), who died last Wednesday at 92.

george-pretre-cr-dieter-nagli-getty-images

The urbane Prêtre – who specialized in French music but also was much in demand for a lot of German and Italian repertoire — studied karate and judo. But he also enjoyed the good life and by all accounts had a terrific sense of humor coupled to a “joie de vivre.”

He often said he preferred being a guest conductor to being a music director because the former was like a love affair and the latter was like a commitment. Yet Prêtre was committed: He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years.

His conducting career spanned 70 years. He was known for his association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. But he also conducted 101 performances of seven operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He also frequently conducted in Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Here is a good summary obituary, with sound clips of orchestral and operatic music, from National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/05/508374381/georges-pr-tre-a-conductor-with-a-70-year-career-dies-at-92

And here is a longer obituary, which gives you the French flavor of the man and the musician, from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/arts/music/georges-pretre-french-conductor-known-for-improvisation-dies-at-92.html

And here is George Prêtre’s most popular video on YouTube, which also serves as a fine memorial in sound:


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs “Scheherazade” in the dramatic Beyond the Score® mixed media format this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

January 9, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the Madison Symphony Orchestra about two performances of a special concert this coming weekend:

Join the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below top) and Music Director John DeMain (below bottom, in a photo by Prasad) as they explore one of the most popular orchestral works ever written with Beyond the Score®: Scheherazade this coming weekend in Overture Hall.

The concerts are this Saturday, Jan. 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, 201 State Street.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Beyond the Score®: Scheherazade is an opportunity for concertgoers to discover Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful and exotic Scheherazade in a whole new way.

The first half experience encompasses video, photos, musical excerpts, and  actors Jim DeVita (below top) and Brenda DeVita (below bottom), of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, telling the story.

In the second half, Scheherazade will be performed from start to finish, by the Madison Symphony Orchestra with John DeMain conducting.

Jim DeVita

Brenda DeVita

The captivating music of Scheherazade evokes images and passions with a solo violin representing the intoxicating storyteller, Scheherazade. Based on an ancient Persian legend, Scheherazade staves off her death at the hands of her cruel Sultan husband, by regaling him with stories for 1001 nights until he falls in love with her.

Rimsky-Korsakov evokes the moods of her various tales with memorable and haunting melodies. (You can hear “Scheherazade,” conducted by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music aficionados and newcomers looking to delve deeper into the world of classical music, Beyond the Score explores Scheherazade’s context in history, how it relates to the work of other composers, and the events of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life that influenced its creation. The Chicago Tribune said of the Beyond the Score series, “Seldom has enlightenment proved so entertaining.”

As a young man, Rimsky-Korsakov (below) spent almost three years at sea with the Russian Navy and was exposed to other cultures. With 19th-century readers fascinated by exotic settings and fairy tales, he first conceived of creating an orchestral work based on the tales known as The Thousand and One Nights in 1887, when he was the leading teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov

Single Tickets are $15 to $60 each, available at madisonsymphony.org/beyondthescore, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit 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 $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students receive 20% savings on advance ticket purchases for seats in select areas of the hall.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

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

Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney, Creative Director for Beyond the Score®.


Classical music: Are they warhorses or masterpieces? Do you agree with the Top 100 classical music pieces as selected by listeners of WQXR?

January 7, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Are they warhorses?

Or are they simply great, surefire masterpieces of classical music that have meaning to many, many people even after repeated listening?

Can they be both?

Can one critic’s warhorse be another listener’s masterpiece? 

Think about it and then decide for yourself.

Here is some help.

Every year, WQXR-FM, the famed classical music radio station in New York City, asks its listeners to nominate the Top 100 pieces of classical music. From the holidays through New Years’ Day, Jan. 1, the radio station then airs those pieces in a countdown format. (You can also check out and stream much of WQXR’s regular and special programming by going to: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/

At the top of this year’s list, not surprisingly, is Ludwig van Beethoven (below). Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are also well represented.

Beethoven big

Here is a link to this year’s selections:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/wqxr-2016-classical-music-countdown/

Many, if not most or even all, of the titles will seem quite familiar.

But before you dismiss them as too easy or too popular or overperformed, The Ear reminds  readers of what the famed American playwright Edward Albee, who died last year, once observed.

Albee said something to the effect: Great art should move you and make you feel different. If it doesn’t do that, then forget it. You’re wasting your time. Find art that does.

How many of these pieces would fit that criterion for you and how many would you also have named? For The Ear, an awful lot.

How many have you heard, live or on a recording?

How many do you look forward to hearing again – on the assumption that repeated listening brings repeated pleasure and deeper appreciation and understanding?

It is also useful to remember what the great and, at the same time, popular pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff  (below) once said: “Classical music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for classical music.”

So much music!

So little time!

Rachmaninoff

Enjoy the list and the music, and leave your thoughts about these selections or about what is missing in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Chicago-based Volta String Quartet, made up of young UW-Madison alumni, makes its FREE local debut Saturday night at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center in music by Haydn, Schubert and Bartok

January 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has an announcement to pass on from the Volta Quartet:

“Join us for our first concert in Madison!

“It is this Saturday night from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 333 West Main Street, two blocks off the Capitol Square.

“The program features the Quartettsatz (Quartet Movement), D. 703, by Franz Schubert; String Quartet, Op. 33, No. 5, by Joseph Haydn; and Quartet No. 1 by Béla Bartók. (You can hear the beautiful “Quarttetsatz by Schubert played by the Alban Berg Quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

“We are called the Volta Quartet, and we are based in Chicago. It is comprised of Alex Norris, and Ben Seeger on violins; Willie Mclellan on viola; and Elizabeth Oar on cello.

The members are pictured below (left to right)” Willie, Ben, Elizabeth and Alex.

volta-quartet-l-r-willie-mclellan-ben-seeger-elizabeth-oar-alex-norris

“Ben, Willie and Alex are all UW-Madison music alumni, and Alex met Elizabeth at the Madeline Island music camp. So, we are all tied together by our experiences in Wisconsin.

“We formed the quartet this summer because we all love to play string quartets and we don’t want to give up that part of our lives just because we are busy with other things.”


Classical music: Here are memorable local concerts in 2016 from critic John W. Barker and The Ear. What ones would you add?

January 4, 2017
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ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, resume this week after a break for Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays. This Friday, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., pianist Olivia Musat will perform music by Olivier Messiaen, Isaac Albeniz and Paul Constantinesco.

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems a tradition throughout the media to offer a roundup of the Year’s Best with a local slant.

The Ear already offered a national and international roundup. Here is a link to that, especially to the surprisingly rich roundup that he unexpectedly found on Wikipedia:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/classical-music-wikipedia-and-wfmt-in-chicago-offer-a-review-of-classical-music-of-2016-that-includes-important-performances-new-music-and-deaths/

For a more local perspective, The Ear trusts and generally agrees with critic John W. Barker (below), who writes frequently for this blog and more often for Isthmus.

John-Barker

Here is a link to Barker’s list of memorable concerts in the Madison area, Because Isthmus mixes classical with other genres like pop, folk and jazz, you have to scroll down to “Classical cornucopia”:

http://isthmus.com/music/year-in-music-2016/

Although I agree with all the concerts that Barker mentions, he left out some that The Ear really loved. One was the absolutely riveting and moving performance in November by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain of the momentous Fifth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

For example just about everything that the Pro Arte Quartet does at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is first-rate and memorable, whether they play in Mills Hall or on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen Museum of Art.”

But this past fall, a free noontime concert by the Pro Arte with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher especially stood out. Together (below), they performed the Piano Quintet in F Minor by Johannes Brahms – an unquestionable masterpiece in an unforgettable performance.

leon-fleisher-and-pro-arte-quartet-2016

The Ear would also add two events, both violin recitals, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Last spring Hilary Hahn (below top, in a photo by Peter Miller) turned in a stunningly superb recital. Then this fall, superstar Joshua Bell (below bottom) did the same. Both artists displayed terrific musicality combined with terrific virtuosity in generous and first-rate, ambitious programs.

Hilary Hahn 2016 CR Peter Miller

joshua-bell-2016

He would add several summer concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, especially the sizzling dueling violin concert (below) where the BDDS interspersed “The Four Seasons” buy Antonio Vivaldi with “The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla.

axel-strauss-bdds-2016-piazzolla

The Ear would also add an experimental concert at which UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below) unveiled his reworked two-keyboard “Hyperpiano.” While the concert, which featured the “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t successful musically, it certainly was intriguing, unusual and highly memorable, even with imperfect digital technology.

Hyperpiano stage

And The Ear also recalls a fine concert by the Rhapsodie Quartet (below) of the Madison Symphony Orchestra at the Overture Center.

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

And let’s not forget the University Opera’s production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi that was impressively and successfully updated to Hollywood by director David Ronis.

uw-falstaff-benjamin-schultz-left-paul-rowe-and-jiabao-zhang

The Ear is sure there are more memorable concerts that escape him right now. Madison just features so much wonderful music-making in the course of a year.

Moreover, The Ear is also sure you have your favorites – whether they are individual plays; small chamber music groups such as duos, string quartets and piano trios; larger ensembles like the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Union Theater; or entire events like the UW Brass Festival.

I am sure that fans of the innovative percussion group Clocks in Motion and the acclaimed Madison Choral Project have a concert or two to nominate.

So please use the COMMENT section to tell us what were your most memorable classical concerts in Madison during 2016.

The Ear wants to hear.


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