The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the last three pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

July 1, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The ambitious project has now ended.

Two weeks ago was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook as well as on YouTube and the internet.

Last week saw the last five compositions and the end of the project.

This blog has already posted the first seven compositions and performances.

Today you can hear the last three.

The project, funded by the federal government, is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19. Below are photos with links to the performances.

The eighth piece is “Lobelia,” a work for solo cello composed by Ashkan Behzadi (below top) and performed by Mariel Roberts of the Wet Ink Ensemble (below bottom, in a photo by Gannushkin).

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/behzadi-roberts.html

The ninth piece is “A Shared Solitary” for solo violin and electronics by composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh (below top) and performed by Jannina Norpoth (below bottom, in a photo by Laura Ise) of the PUBLIQuartet.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/nourbakhsh-norpoth.html

The 10th and final piece is “Have and Hold” for solo singing flutist and electronics composed by Allison Loggins-Hull (below top, in a photo by Rafael Rios) and performed by Nathalie Joachim (below bottom, in a photo by Erin Patrice O-Brien), both of the group Flutronix.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/loggins-hull-joachim.html

On the same page as the performance you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what it strives to mean or express.

You can use links to go to the past performances and premieres, to all 10 commissions.

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the individual pieces?

Do you have one or more favorites?

What do you think of the project?

How successful is it?

Will you like to hear more by composers of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are the world premieres of the fourth and fifth pieces of “pandemic music” commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress

June 22, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The project has reached the midway point.

Last week was when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written for the Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — started going public and began being posted on various social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as the Internet.

One performance is released each weekday night starting at 8 p.m. EDT.

The project is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first piece was “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed and performed by Jeremy Jordan.

The second was “shadow of a difference/falling” by composer Richard Drehoff Jr. and solo oboist Andrew Nogal of the Grossman Ensemble.

There were featured in this blog last week.

The fourth and fifth pieces were premiered last Thursday and Friday, bringing the project to the halfway point before the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day and Make Music Madison weekend.

The fourth work is “Bridges,” a solo piano work composed by Cliff Eidelman (below top) and performed at home by Jenny Lin (below bottom, in a photo by Liz Linder).

The title refers to the composer’s focus on finding bridges from the peculiar coronavirus pandemic back to normal life.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/eidelman-lin.html

The fifth piece is “Hello World” by composer by Erin Rogers (below top, in a photo by Aleksandr Karjaka), an exploratory work for solo flute that is performed by Erin Lesser (below bottom) of the Wet Ink Ensemble.

https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/rogers-lesser.html

On the same page as the performance you can read what the composer and sometimes the performer have to say about the new work and what it strives to mean or express.

You can use links to go to the five past performances and premieres.

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to see more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with some commentary and questions from The Ear, go to https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the pieces?

What do you think of the project?

Will you like to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Here is the world premiere of the first piece of “pandemic music” commissioned by the Library of Congress

June 16, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It has started.

This is the week when the world premieres of the 10 short pieces — written by American composers for the U.S. Library of Congress’ “Boccaccio Project” — will go public and start being posted on various social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well as the Internet.

The project is a way to capture some of the unique culture brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19.

The first is “Sequestered Thoughts,” a solo piano work by composed Damien Sneed (below top) and performed by Jeremy Jordan (below  bottom).

Below is a link to the page with the performance. You can also read what both the composer and the pianist have to say about the new work and what it means — including rippling octaves that depict the monotony of the days in isolation.

Here is the link: https://www.loc.gov/concerts/boccaccio-project/sneed-jordan.html

You can also follow links on the bottom of the page to more information about both the composer and the performer, and to general background of the project.

If you would like some more background, along with commentary and questions, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/classical-music-the-library-of-congress-has-commissioned-new-music-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-you-can-listen-to-the-premieres-from-this-monday-june-15-through-june-28/

What do you think of the new piece?

What do you think of the whole project?

Do you want to hear more of the commissioned music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This week the UW-Madison hosts a faculty horn recital and two orchestral concerts – one by the visiting and innovative chamber orchestra The Knights and the other by UW students

February 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week is a busy one at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with concerts on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

There are also FREE and PUBLIC master classes on Friday.

Here are details:

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 5

At 7:30 p.m. in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., UW horn professor Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill) – a member of the acclaimed Wisconsin Brass Quintet – will perform a FREE faculty recital.

Grabois will be accompanied by pianist Shuk-Ki Wong.

No specific program has been posted. But composers on the program include Eugene Bozza, Charles Gounod, Francis Poulenc, Wolfgang Plagge and a world premiere by Daniel Kessner.

THURSDAY, FEB. 6

At 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, also in the Hamel Music Center, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below, with the UW Choral Union in the background) will give a FREE concert.

UW professor Oriol Sans (below), who is new to campus this year, will be the main conductor with Michael Dolan serving as a guest conductor.

The program is the “Appalachian Spring” Suite by Aaron Copland and the Symphony No. 9 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

SATURDAY, FEB. 8

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, guest artists The Knights will give a concert that features UW clarinetist Alicia Lee (below), who is a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet and who toured with The Knights chamber orchestra during the decade she lived and worked in New York City.

Says Lee: “We are excited to bring a group with a fresh perspective that is run in perhaps a less traditional way,” Lee says of the residency. “This is a group of people with interesting, diverse approaches to a life in music. Many have been making music together for nearly 20 years, so the roots of both friendship and musical values run very deep.”

On Friday, Feb. 7, The Knights (below) will offer a one-day, on-campus residency that is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Opportunities include access to strings, wind, percussion and horn master classes; a workshop on music business; a side-by-side orchestral reading; and attendance at their rehearsal. All activities will take place in the Hamel Music Center. For a day-long schedule, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/the-knights/

You can hear rehearsals and commentaries by The Knights in the YouTube video at the bottom.

According to program notes: “The Knights is a collective of adventurous musicians, dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music.

“Driven by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and exploration, they inspire listeners with vibrant programs that encompass their roots in the classical tradition and passion for artistic discovery.

“The orchestra has toured and recorded with renowned soloists including Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Bela Fleck and Gil Shaham, and have performed at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood and the Vienna Musikverein. Read more at: https://theknightsnyc.com

The program for The Kreutzer Project concert on Saturday night is:

Colin Jacobsen: World premiere of a new work

Ludwig van Beethoven: Kreutzer Concerto 
(based on the famous Kreutzer Sonata) arranged by The Knights for solo violin and chamber orchestra

INTERMISSION

Leos Janacek: The “Kreutzer Sonata”
 String Quartet arranged by The Knights for chamber orchestra

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances
 arranged by The Knights for chamber orchestra

General admission tickets are $30 and are available at the Campus Ticketing Office in the Memorial Union and by calling (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or visiting: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=83A6D957-B006-4ABC-AFB2-6485A8C4D94C.

Free rush tickets for UW-Madison students and music faculty are subject to availability. Visit the Hamel box office one hour before the concert.

 


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Classical music: Famed radio station WQXR names the best 100 recordings of 2019. Listen to samples of them here

December 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Did you get a gift card for the holidays?

Are you looking how to spend it by either purchasing CDs or subscribing to a streaming service?

Help and guidance are available.

Few names in the airing of classical music carry more prestige than the famed radio station WQXR in New York City.

To check out the radio station’s choice of the best recordings of 2019 is also to see where the worlds of recording and concertizing are heading.

Such trends include rediscovering neglected composers and championing new music as well as women composers, such as Clara Schumann, and composers of color, such as the American composer Florence Price (below), who has often been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio this past year.

But you will also find noteworthy recordings of such classics as Johann Sebastian Bach – and two of his rarely heard cousins instead of his sons – and well as outstanding recordings of symphonies and piano sonatas (below, the set by Igor Levit) for the upcoming Beethoven Year to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer.

And you will also find names of outstanding performers you may not have heard of — such as the exceptional Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang (below), a Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist whom The Ear would like to see perform here.

Here is a link to 25 picks with commentaries– plus another 75 titles and samples, without commentary, to round out a Top 100.

Happy listening!

https://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2019/


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Classical music: Music professor John Schaffer is retiring from UW-Madison. A benefit jazz concert on Saturday, June 1, will celebrate his career as a teacher and former director of the Mead Witter School of Music

May 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Professor John Schaffer (below), who served as the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music for 15 years from 1997 to 2012, is retiring this summer.

A jazz concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, at Full Compass Systems, located at 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona,  will celebrate his retirement. Details and ticket information are below.

Here is a summary of his major achievements, as compiled by a colleague:

During his tenure as director, John Schaffer:

• Raised more than $10 million for music scholarships, including the Paul Collins graduate fellowships and the Steenbock undergraduate scholarships, more than doubling all student support.

• Secured funding for three endowed professorships: Pro Arte Quartet first violinist David Perry; piano virtuoso and Van Cliburn International Piano Competition bronze medal winner Christopher Taylor; and acclaimed jazz pianist Johannes Wallmann.

• With then-chancellor John Wiley, he launched plans for the new performance facility – the Hamel Music Center — that will open this fall, and raised more than $20 million in private funds for its construction.

• Established the School of Music’s inaugural Board of Visitors, which actively connects the school with a broad community worldwide as it continues to serve in an advisory and support capacity.

• Built strong relations with community organizations including the Madison Symphony Orchestra by establishing the joint residency of the Hunt Quartet – creating further student funding opportunities – and the Independent String Teachers’ Association.

• Established the Perlman Piano Trio (below), an undergraduate scholarship opportunity funded by Kato Perlman.

• Recruited faculty professors/performers with national and international reputations.

• Collaborated with the UW Foundation and Alumni Associations to present UW student performers throughout the country and world.

• Expanded student musician performances across campus, and established the twice-annual Chancellor’s Concert Series.

• Oversaw the planning for the 100th anniversary of the Pro Arte Quartet, the school’s flagship ensemble-in-residence since 1938.

• Established the School of Music recording label, which during its active run released close to 50 albums of faculty artists.

• Created the Wisconsin Center for Music Technology, and was the founding editor of the journal Computers in Music Research.

• Revitalized the Jazz Studies program at UW-Madison that has expanded with additional faculty, new student jazz ensembles and the establishment of a major in jazz performance.

• Was actively involved in music administration on the national level by serving multiple terms on the board of directors of the National Association of Schools of Music, the national accrediting organization. He spent more than a decade training accreditation teams, and performing accreditation reviews of music schools and conservatories throughout the country.

• Served on numerous local boards including those of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Country Day School, the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

Schaffer’s own academic work in music theory focused initially on analysis of contemporary and non-tonal music, and in artificial intelligence applications in music theory. When he returned to the faculty from being director, he re-focused his teaching on the history, theory and performance of jazz and developed new courses in the discipline and regularly coached student jazz ensembles.

After a 40-year career in academia, Schaffer is retiring to pursue other interests. For the time being, he plans to remain in the Madison area. Initially trained as a classical guitarist, his performance emphasis long ago evolved to playing jazz bass, and he’ll still be heard gigging around town, playing frequently at venues and series such as Otto’s, Capital Brewery’s beer garden, Delaney’s Steak House, Coda Cafe and the North Street Cabaret.

“The biggest reward over all my years as an educator and administrator is the impact I’ve had on the thousands of students I’ve been privileged to teach and encounter,” says Schaffer. “It’s been immensely gratifying.”

Schaffer’s contributions to music in the greater Madison area will be recognized at a benefit concert, sponsored by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, on Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Full Compass Systems, 9770 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona. UW-Madison Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley will offer commentary and perspective. Light refreshments will be served.

Tickets for the benefit concert are $30 at the door, $25 in advance online. A limited number of student tickets are available at $15. VIP tickets are $150 and include reserved, best-in-house seating, a private pre-concert reception at 6 p.m. and other benefits.

For more information, go to: http://www.jazzinmadison.org/event/jazz-junction-benefit-concert-for-the-jazz-consortium-full-compass/

For tickets, go to:https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4236134


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Classical music: In Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the Madison Opera demonstrated how beautiful music and convincing stagecraft can overcome a weak story

May 1, 2019
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event

By Jacob Stockinger

The Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of “Rusalka” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Sunday afternoon performance of Antonin Dvorak’s opera “Rusalka” presented by Madison Opera in Overture Hall. Until then I had only heard recordings of this lushly orchestrated work.

The opera is a fairy tale involving a rather dithering water sprite (below right) who does not follow her father’s wise advice not to pursue a mortal prince (below left) and to stick to her own kind. She ignores his advice, and this leads to her eventual unhappiness and to the death of her prince.

That she also becomes mute when in the presence of the prince adds to everyone’s woes, and it seems a peculiar device to have the lead soprano not be able to sing for most of the second act of the opera.

Her inability to communicate naturally leads to the prince’s frustration, and my companion suggested that she could simply have used paper and pencil to communicate. But since she had been brought up in a river, perhaps she never learned to read and write.

Nevertheless, common sense did not seem to inhabit either Rusalka or her prince. As my companion also pointed out, love isn’t always logical.

In any event, the production and the music made up for the libretto’s shortcomings.

The set featured beautiful projections, from the Minnesota Opera, of forest, water and woodlands during the first and third acts.

The second act took place at the prince’s palace. It appeared to be an International Style palace in the manner of architect Mies van de Rohe, which must have also been disconcerting for Rusalka. Nonetheless, the set was very striking and beautifully lit.

Tenor John Lindsey (below top) portrayed the prince and William Meinert (below bottom left, with Emily Birsan) was Rusalka’s father, a water goblin. Both sang well, although Lindsey had the distracting habit of casting his chin and eyes downward as he sang.


But the stage belonged to the women.

Emily Birsan (below) as Rusalka was a study in subtle shadings of her expressive soprano voice (below, singing the famous  aria “Song to the Moon”). She is a powerful singer and convincing actress who was engaging to watch and to hear.

Lindsay Ammann (below) as the sorceress Jezibaba was powerful in voice and in her command of the stage. Her third act aria was sensational, and her calling Rusalka a “empty little water bubble” was so apt it made the audience titter.

The villainous Foreign Princess portrayed by Karin Wolverton (below, standing over John Lindsey) seemed to be the only sensible character in the opera. She likewise commanded the stage and displayed a powerful voice with passionate commitment to her role.

Three water sprites – portrayed by Kirsten Larson, Saira Frank and Emily Secor (below, in order from left) – provided Rhine maiden-like commentary and gorgeous vocalizations despite having to wander around the stage at times seeming to be fascinated by twigs.

A shout-out goes to tenor Benjamin Liupaogo (below), still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, who only sang a couple of lines but sang them very beautifully. He is someone to watch!

The Madison Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). The strings and winds sounded particularly good that day, and DeMain brought out all of the interesting Bohemian folky gestures Dvorak included in the score. I found Dvorak’s orchestral score engaging throughout the performance. (You can hear the opening Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Altogether it was charming afternoon of beautiful music, excellent singing and fetching staging of a strange tale.

Madison Opera has announced its upcoming season offerings, which are Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (Nov. 1 and 3), Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers” (here Feb. 7 and 9, it has already hit Chicago and Minneapolis and is slated for Tucson next season as well), and Jacques Offenbach’s comic “Orpheus in the Underworld” (April 17 and 19).

It seems a very interesting season, and subscription tickets will go on sale in early May. For more information, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org


Posted in Classical music
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