The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Does anyone else feel put off by the amount of requests for money from music organizations?

October 22, 2017
12 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It happened again this weekend.

The Ear got two more mailings from local music groups.

And both solicited money – again.

It seems like all communications these days include a plea for money, more money.

Up to a point, The Ear understands why charities and non-profits seek donations and he doesn’t mind it.

But it is beginning to happen so often and to feel so off-putting that it is taking the focus away from the music.

It reminds The Ear of when he used to contribute to such worthwhile groups as Amnesty InternationalDoctors Without Borders and the ACLU.

A generous yearly donation never seemed enough.

Every month some new “emergency” arose and they came back for more. After a while, you started to feel like a sucker, or at least a bottomless well in their eyes.

The only solution was to end the annual donation and get off the mailing list.

Now, much of the music business is starting to feel just that – too much business and too little music.

The commercialism is starting to feel overwhelming and alienating, especially when one already pays hefty prices for some tickets.

Is The Ear alone?

Should he feel differently?

Or do others feel the same way?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Bellini’s opera “Norma” opens the new season of “Live From the Met in HD” at movie theaters this Saturday and Wednesday

October 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

At a time when so many classical music programs are striving desperately for commercial success and popularity with the public, one program stands out as phenomenally successful: The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts.

Those broadcasts reach hundreds of cinemas around the world in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Here is a list of the international showings:

http://www.metopera.org/season/in-cinemas/international-locations/

The new season of the live broadcasts by the Metropolitan Opera (below) opens this Saturday.

The broadcasts in Madison will take place at two Marcus Corporation cinemas: at the Point Cinemas on the far west side and the Palace Cinemas in Sun Prairie on the far east side.

The first of 10 operas in the season is a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Druid-based bel canto opera “Norma.”

The outstanding cast of singers and actors includes Sondra Radvanovsky, Joseph Callejo and Joyce DiDonato. Carlo Rizzi is the conductor. (You can hear a preview of this production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The running time is 3 hours 30 minutes.

Tickets are $18.

Here is a season trailer:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjdLOBRCkARIsAFj5-GBXxKzE43SMmgIUAPUrx1p2YrxzvDPG4cMZZk_7JwaoFQOMy22lf_0aAl8xEALw_wcB

The live performance is this Saturday, Oct. 7, at 11:55 a.m.:

http://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-norma-live

Encore presentations and rebroadcast are on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 1 pm. and 6:30 p.m.:

http://www.marcustheatres.com/movies/met-norma-encore

For this production of “Norma,” here are:

A link to a synopsis and cast list:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/SynopsisCast/norma/?performanceNumber=14827

Links to production notes and program notes:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2017-18-Season/norma-bellini-tickets/

http://www.metopera.org/metoperafiles/season/2017-18/operas/norma/programs/100717%20Norma.pdf

Much of the upcoming season features standard tried-and-true operas by Mozart (“The Magic Flute” and “Cosi fan tutti“); Puccini (“Tosca” and “La Bohème”); Verdi (“Luisa Miller”)’ Rossini (“Semiramide”) and Donizetti (“The Elixir of Love”). But there is also a contemporary work, “The Exterminating Angel,” by Thomas Adès and a holiday production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

What do you think of the “Live From the Met” screenings?

What do you think most makes them so successful? The quality of the productions? The affordable price? The accessibility?

And what do you think of the choice of operas in the new season?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ear listens with eyes open and finds interesting photos at concerts

August 14, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It was the famous 20th-century composer and pioneering modernist Igor Stravinsky (below) who advised us to listen to music with our eyes open.

For one, it fosters our appreciation of the sheer physicality of making music. Musicians are, as the pianist Vladimir Horowitz once observed, athletes of the small muscles.

If you listen with your eyes open you can see a lot of things.

You can see how musicians give each other cues.

You can see the expression on their faces, the joy and pleasure that making music gives them.

You can observe how different members of the audience react differently to different music.

You can appreciate the many kinds of instruments with the eye-catching shapes, sizes and colors.

And you can see patterns that make for good photographs – if taking photos is allowed.

Of course even if it is, there are rules to follow so that the musicians and other audience members are not disturbed: no flash and no shutter sound are the main ones besides the rule of intellectual property and the forbidding of taking photographs – kind of a difficult one to enforce these days, what with all the smart phones out there.

But some musicians and groups are very friendly and open to photographing, especially if the photos are strictly personal and not for commercial use to earn a profit.

At the last regular concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber players a little over two weeks ago, The Ear found two that showed patterns for good composition.

It’s just fun. But productive fun that can capture the fascination with music and musicians, especially if you sit close to the performers.

Here they are.

First is “Three Clarinets,” a portrait of guest artist Michael Maccaferri, from the Grammy-winning chamber music group eighth blackbird, with the three clarinets he used in the Argentinian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” The black verticality of the clarinets is heightened by the same quality of the music stands.

The second is “Two Cellos and One Violin,” taken during the bows after the string sextet version of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante.” The shapes and shades of brown wood draw the eye.

Tell The Ear of you like this kind of photo essay and want to see more of them on the blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Let us now praise — and program — Lou Harrison, the prophetic American composer who pioneered both personal and professional diversity in music

May 20, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the name of Lou Harrison.

But he doesn’t recall ever actually hearing any music by Lou Harrison (below).

Maybe that will change, now that the centennial of Harrison’s birth is being marked.

Perhaps the UW-Madison or a smaller local group will do something, since neither the Madison Symphony Orchestra nor the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has programmed anything by Harrison in their next seasons.

The Ear certainly hopes to hear some of Harrison’s intriguing and prophetic music, which seems to be a harbinger of contemporary globalism and world music, performed live. Harrison’s work seems to presage Yo-Yo Ma‘s crossover and cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, but was way ahead of its time and without the commercial success.

In any case, it seems very few composers pioneered and championed both personal and professional diversity through Asian sounds and an openly gay identity. Completely genuine, Harrison seemed creative and imaginative in just about everything he touched and did.

If you, like The Ear, know little about the maverick Lou Harrison, an excellent background piece, recently done by Tom Huizinga of National Public Radio (NPR), is a fine introduction.

Here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/05/13/525919082/lou-harrison-the-maverick-composer-with-asia-in-his-ears

Harrison composed a lot of music, including concertos for piano and violin, that shows Asian influences and combines them with traditional Western classical music. Below is a YouTube recording of his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan from 1981-82.

Have you heard or performed Harrison’s music?

What do you think of it?

Would you like to hear it programmed for live performance more often?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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