The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Chamber versions of symphonies and piano concertos by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven helped secure the composers’ reputations back when they were new music

August 30, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you heard one at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts (below), where they have become a kind of signature.

Or perhaps you heard one at a concert by the Ancora String Quartet or the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

What we’re talking about are scaled-down chamber versions of symphonies and piano concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Today they seem like curiosities, perhaps programmed to keep budgets smaller and use fewer performers.

But historically those same arrangements were more than conveniences or compromises. They proved vital in securing the works and reputations of those composers for posterity up until today.

Recently, The New York Times published a record review by Zachary Woolfe that provides valuable background about these rearranged works.

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/arts/music/mozart-jupiter-hyperion.html

If you would like to experience one for yourself, you have the chance this Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

That’s when and where pianist and Harvard University professor of musicology Robert Levin (below) will perform a chamber version of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, by Beethoven. It is part of a program by Levin and pianist Ya-Fei Chuang that explores the piano and concludes this year’s 30th anniversary festival. (You can hear the opening movement of the Beethoven piano concerto in the version with string quartet in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link with more information about tickets ($32) and the festival:

http://tokencreekfestival.org/2019-season/programs/


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Classical music: As we say goodbye to summer, YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Irish composer Joan Trimble’s “Pastorale” homage to the summery French composer Francis Poulenc

August 26, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

One week from today is Labor Day.

So it is time to start saying goodbye to summer and hello to fall — even though the autumnal equinox won’t arrive until Monday, Sept. 23, at 2:50 a.m. CDT.

The Ear’s favorite summertime composer is the French master Francis Poulenc (below), whose accessible and tuneful music possesses in abundance that Gallic sense of lightness and lyricism, of wit and charm, of modern Mozartean classicism and clarity — complete with trills and ornaments — that seems so appropriate to the summer season.

But then recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, The Ear heard for the first time something inspired by Poulenc that he thinks many of you will appreciate, especially during the transition between the seasons.

It is, appropriately, a 2-1/2 minute “Pastorale” for two  pianos – a form Poulenc himself used in his most famous piano concerto — by the underplayed and little known Irish 20th-century composer and pianist Joan Trimble (below). And it has many of the same qualities that distinguish Poulenc.

Here is a link to a Wikipedia entry with more about Trimble: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Trimble

You can hear her homage to Poulenc in the YouTube video, from a Marco Polo CD distributed by Naxos Records, that is below.

Here’s hoping you enjoy it.

If you have a reaction, positive or negative, please share it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The eclectic fusion group Mr. Chair plays music by Stravinsky, Satie and others on Monday night in Spring Green

August 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement from the Rural Musicians Forum:

Mr. Chair looks like a jazz quartet, sounds sometimes like a rock band, but in actuality is a contemporary classical music group in the guise of a modern band.

Classically trained musicians who are well versed in jazz, the players in Mr. Chair create a new sound using both acoustic and electric instruments.(You can hear Mr. Chair perform the original composition “Freed” in the the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Rural Musicians Forum audience will have the chance to enjoy the soundscapes of this fascinating eclectic fusion group on this coming Monday night, Aug. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater (below) in Spring Green.

Members of Mr. Chair (below) are Professor Mark Hetzler, trombone and electronics; Jason Kutz, piano and keyboards; Ben Ferris, acoustic and electric bass; and Mike Koszewski, drums and percussion. All have close ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where they also perform as an ensemble.

Mr. Chair’s compositions are long-form journeys, telling stories through sound by using and exploring the three pillars of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Think cinematic, orchestral, surreal, romantic, emotional and gripping, and always equal parts dissonant and consonant. Their influences are far-reaching from classical, blues and rock to soul, funk, jazz and beyond.

For this concert, Mr. Chair will perform re-imagined excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical ballet masterpiece Pulcinella as well as music by Erik Satie and selections from their debut album, NEBULEBULA, which will be released on Thursday, Sept. 5, on vinyl, CD and digital streaming platforms.

The genre-bending quartet will perform in the beautiful Hillside Theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as part of his Taliesin compound. It is located at 6604 State Highway 23, about five miles south of Spring Green.

Admission is by free will offering, with a suggested donation of $15.


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Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: There was so much to like about the Grand Tour finale of the 2019 Madison Early Music Festival. But where were the high notes in Allegri’s legendary “Miserere”?

July 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Fair is fair.

Before he talks about last Saturday night’s conclusion of the successful 2019 Madison Early Music Festival – which marked its 20th anniversary — The Ear has a confession to make: He generally prefers later Baroque music and he generally prefers instrumental music to vocal or choral music.

That said, he nonetheless had a memorable and very enjoyable time on the “Grand Tour” during the well-attended All-Festival concert. There was so much to like and to admire.

The concert used the conceit of a Grand Tour by a composite 17th-century traveler going to London, Venice, Rome, Naples, Paris and Dresden to take in the local sights and local music, and included lesser-known composers such as William Lawes and William Child as well as such famous figures as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli , Jean-Baptiste Lullyand Heinrich Schütz.

Like most journeys, this one – once again assembled in an ingenious scissors-and-paste job by early music specialist Grant Herreid (below) – had many entertaining and uplifting moments.

But it also had one big disappointment.

The Ear really looked forward to hearing a live performance  of the famous “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri (below) as a high point. But those haunting, ultra-high descant notes that give you goosebumps and that you never forget hearing just never materialized.

Maybe it had to do with the different ornamentation that the MEMF forces used. Maybe it was based on a different manuscript or score. Maybe there was no one capable of singing those spellbinding and unforgettable high notes.

Whatever the reason, The Ear’s hope for a live performance of the dramatic and iconic work were dashed and the famous, even classic, recorded versions – the 1980 recording by the Tallis Scholars is heard in the YouTube video at the bottom — remain for him the unsurpassed standard.

The evening also had its ironies. That same night on the NBC TV news The Ear saw a story about “overtourism” in Europe and China. Venice, for example, has now shrunk to only about 50,000 unhappy residents who put up with some 20 million tourists a year.

But centuries ago, travel was a rare and exotic luxury of the wealthy and well-educated, not an affordable indulgence or curiosity by ever-expanding middle classes. And this metaphorical trip proved an ideal vehicle to sample 16th- and 17th-century music in England, France, Germany and Italy.

Combining high culture and low, Herreid chose witty and detailed travelogue texts that gave the audience the rich flavor of various cultures at the time.

Details mattered to the four sharp-eyed travelers on which this tour was based. So as “our hero” wandered, we got to hear about the “libidinous ladies” of Naples and the musical talented courtesans of Venice as well as the richly attired archbishop of Paris attending a feast day service in the newly finished Notre-Dame cathedral.

Such descriptions were well delivered by unnamed narrators (below) from the chorus and proved a refreshingly earthy and entertaining counterpoint to the more serious spiritual and religious music of the era.

Another big satisfaction was the exceptional quality of the ensemble playing – exhibited even in large amounts of less interesting music — by the many singers and instrumentalists on the stage of Mills Hall, and, at one point, in the hall’s balcony.

Whether the players and singers were conducted by Herreid or by assistant conductor Jerry Hui — a UW-Madison graduate who is now a tenured professor at UW-Stout — the music sounded tight, authentic and expressive.

As for more superficial pleasures, it is great visual fun watching such early versions of modern string, wind and percussion instruments being played — trombone-like sackbuts, oboe-like shawms, flute-like recorders and lute-like theorbos. (Below are cello-like viols.)

The players, both faculty and students, were particularly convincing on their own in the sound painting done to depict battle scenes and political upheaval. And who will ever forget the surprise of loud foot-stomping by all the performers and conductor?

Herreid was absolutely spot-on to keep the program to about 80 minutes with no intermission. It helped the audience stay in the spirit of the Grand Tour and added cohesion to the program.

The Grand Tour, in short, proved outstanding in concept and excellent in execution.

But was The Ear alone in missing to those high notes?


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: Three piano pieces by the forgotten American composer William Mason that are worth rediscovering

July 12, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As often happens, The Ear was listening to Wisconsin Public Radio and yesterday afternoon he made a discovery during The Midday program with Norman Gilliland.

It was piano piece called “Amourette” by the American 19th-century composer William Mason (below). Unfortunately, you won’t find that piece on YouTube. But here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, are three other fine works, probably from the same Naxos CD, that are also noteworthy discoveries of a forgotten, if minor, composer who had a knack for pleasing and melodic salon music.

Here are a brief biography and an introduction from YouTube and Wikipedia:

William Mason (below, 1829-1908) was an American pianist, composer and teacher. He was from a musical family, son of the famous and prolific hymn composer Lowell Mason, and brother of Henry Mason, co-founder of Mason and Hamlin pianos.

William studied in Europe and was the first American student of Franz Liszt. In his music, you can hear reflected some of the major piano composers of the 19th century.

Here is a link to his entry in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Mason_(composer)

Although these William Mason pieces are largely forgotten now, his work is wonderfully melodic and certainly deserves to be heard more often.

These three pieces are from the Naxos CD “William Mason” (No. 8.559142) The CD contains 14 other Mason compositions – including his best known “Silver Spring.” (The CD is part of the American Classics Collection.)

For those tired of hearing the same classical music on the radio or the concert hall – the Naxos collection provides a wide spectrum of superb but rarely heard music.

The pianist on this album is Kenneth Boulton. On the third piece, “Badinage,” which is for piano four-hands, Kenneth Boulton is joined by his wife and pianist JoAnne Barry.

Track Listings: 0:00 “Improvisation”; 4:30 “Lullaby”; 7:35 “Badinage”

Do you like Mason’s music?

Let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Concerts on the Square begin this Wednesday night – and half of the six concerts feature classical music

June 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The 36th annual FREE summer series of six Concerts on the Square, performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and guest soloists, will begin this Wednesday night, June 26, at 7 p.m. on the King Street Corner of the Capitol Square in downtown Madison.

Each concert draws an average of 30,000 people.

But if you think it is largely a pops concert event, think again.

One of the many outstanding achievements that WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) has brought to the event – billed as “the Biggest Picnic of Summer” — over the past 20 years is an increased emphasis on classical music, perhaps to help build new audiences for the WCO’s winter Masterworks concerts.

The opening concert, for example, has become a tradition, a chance to introduce to the public the latest winner of the WCO’s young people’s concerto competition – and this year is no different.

Three of the six concerts will be also all-classical – and that’s not counting Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” that will be featured on the Fourth of July program on July 3.

There will also be pops music of course, including a tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ iconic album “Abbey Road”; patriotic fare for Independence Day; and an evening of movie scores, most composed by John Williams, with concertmaster Suzanne Beia as violin soloist in the theme from “Schindler’s List.”

All concerts are on six consecutive Wednesday nights from June 28 through July 31. Performances begin at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square. They usually last about two hours.

To find out more, including the programs and biographies of performers for each program, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/concerts-on-the-square

Once there, if you click on a specific date, on the right hand side you will also find information about concert etiquette, seating on the Capitol lawn, weather cancellations, catering menus, food vendor sales and other information, including details about volunteering and donating. Here is a link to general guidelines:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square/attending-the-concert/ 

Here are the three classical concerts:

JUNE 26

“East Meets West” features the WCO’s concerto competition winner pianist Sakurako Eriksen (below) – a Madison native now living in Milwaukee — in the popular and virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Prokofiev.

Also on the program are “Francesca da Rimini” by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes” by French composer by Maurice Ravel; and an unnamed work by Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.

JULY 10

“Finlandia” features the Russian-born and Moscow Conservatory-trained accordion virtuoso Sergei Belkin (below).

On the program are unnamed works by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and Alexander Glazunov; “Oblivion” by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla; the “Sabre Dance” by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian; and “Finlandia” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

JULY 31

“Rockin’ Rachmaninov” features Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), a frequent WCO guest artist who teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City.

The program includes the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, by Sergei Rachmaninov; the Overture to the opera “The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the 1944 “Cornish Rhapsody” piano concerto score, composed by English composer Hubert Bath for the World War II film “Love Story”; and a Suite from “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky.


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Classical music: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is Memorial Day – a good time to remember the civilian dead as well as the military dead. The Ear likes Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” What music would you listen to to mark the holiday?

May 27, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2019, when the nation honors the men and women who died in military service. The Ear would like to see much more attention and remembrance paid to the huge number of civilians — much higher than military personnel and soldiers — who have died in wars and military service, whose lives weren’t given but taken.

In fact, why not establish and celebrate a separate holiday to honor civilian deaths in war? Perhaps it would help to know the detailed history and background of the holiday, since it is not as straightforward or modern as you might expect:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

What piece of classical music would you listen to in order to mark the holiday?

There is a lot to choose from.

The Ear especially likes “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by the early 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel. It is a “tombeau” – a metaphorical “tomb” or “grave” used by the French to mean paying homage to the dead – in two senses.

Its neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style recalls the 18th-century world of French composers and harpsichordists including Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin. But in a second sense, Ravel (below, in 1910) dedicated each of the six movements to a friend – in one case, two brothers — who had died during World War I. So part of its appeal is that it is a very personal statement of grief.

Here is more detailed background about the piece:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_tombeau_de_Couperin

The work was orchestrated later, which added sonic color but cut out two movements. The Ear prefers the original piano version, which seems a little more percussive, austere and straightforward — less pretty but more beautiful, and more in keeping with the holiday by evoking sentiment without sentimentality.

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear it in a live performance by Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

But there are lots of other works to choose from by many composers: John Adams (“The Wound Dresser” after poetry of Walt Whitman); Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings); Ludwig van Beethoven (slow movements of Symphonies 3 and 7, and of the Piano Sonata Op. 26); Johannes Brahms (“A German Requiem”); Benjamin Britten (War Requiem);  Frederic Chopin (Funeral March from Sonata No. 2, polonaises, preludes and the “Revolutionary” Etude); Aaron Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Letter From Home”); Edward Elgar (“Nimrod” from “Enigma Variations”); Gabriel Faure (Requiem and Elegy for cello); Franz Joseph Haydn (“Mass in Time of War”); Paul Hindemith (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love”);  Charles Ives (Variations on “America” and “Decoration Day”); Henry Purcell (“When I Am Laid in Earth”); John Philip Sousa (“Honored Dead” March); Ralph Vaughan Williams (Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”); and many others, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Here is a list from the British radio station Classical FM:

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/memorial/remembrance-day-music/war-requiem-britten/

Here is a list of patriotic music from Nashville Public Radio:

https://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/classical-music-remembrance-and-loss-memorial-day-playlist#stream/0

Here is another list from an American source:

http://midamerica-music.com/blog/five-classical-works-memorial-day/

Here are more sound samples from NPR:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104341851

And here is another one from Northwest Public Radio:

https://www.nwpb.org/2015/05/22/memorial-day-music-commemorate-celebrate/

What do you think of a holiday commemorating civilian deaths in war?

What favorite piece of classical music would you play and listen to as you mark Memorial Day?

Let us know, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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