The Well-Tempered Ear

YOU MUST HEAR THIS: No piece captures the mixed emotions of Memorial Day better than Charles Ives’ “Decoration Day”

May 30, 2022
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2022.

It is the annual holiday to remember those who died in military service to the country. (Below are flags placed each year at the tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.)

If you want to honor survivors and current service members, that would be Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

All weekend long the radio has been playing music and the television has been showing war movies.

A lot of the music is familiar and repeated every year: Sousa marches and Morton Gould suites, elegies by Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; requiems by Mozart and Fauré; a hymn by John Williams and other movie scores. This year has also seen the playlist include rediscovered works of homage by African-American composers such as William Grant Still.

But only this year did The Ear finally hear — thanks to Wisconsin Public Radio — the one piece that, to his mind, best captures Memorial Day with its blending of consonance and dissonance, its mix of major and major keys, of familiar or “found” music and original music.

It is called, simply, “Decoration Day” and it was composed in 1912 — but not published until 1989 — by the 20th-century iconoclastic and early modernist American composer Charles Ives (below, 1874-1954). It ended up as part of a work the composer called “A Symphony: New England Hollidays.”

See if you agree with The Ear.

Listen to the 8-minute performance by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Listen to the deep anguish and and sense of loss conveyed in the opening, when a solemn remembrance procession goes to a cemetery to plant flags and lay flowers and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of the fallen.

Listen carefully and you will hear a faint version of “Taps” and ringing church bells in the atmospheric music.

Then as so often happens in reality, life suddenly intrudes in the form of a celebration by a loud marching brass band as it leaves the cemetery for the celebratory marches, picnics and fireworks.

But at the end, the darkness briefly returns. The sense of loss lingers long after the actual death and long after the holiday has been celebrated.

There is no closure.

Just resignation.

Just living with loss.

Here is the background from Wikipedia about how the holiday started as Decoration Day after the Civil War and when it evolved into Memorial Day in 1970: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

And here is biographical background, with the actual sources and depictions of “Decoration Day”  — just go  down the page to compositions and click — about Charles Ives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

Did you know and like Charles Ives’ music?

Does “Decoration Day” impress or move you?

What music most embodies Memorial Day for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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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: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet opens its new season in top form

September 24, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night in Mills Hall, in an all-masterpiece program that featured Classical, Romantic and Modernist works, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) opened its new season .

And it did so in top form. The Ear came away with one thought: You just can’t find better chamber music in Madison — and it’s free!

In the “Sunrise” Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Pro Arte exhibited the ideal Classical style with its balance, voicing and clarity.

The sunrise motif proved utterly convincing and evocative. Particularly noteworthy was how the group highlighted the dissonances in the Classical era’s slow movement. (Hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The interpretation offered more proof that when the work is consonant, you play for the dissonance; and when the work is dissonant, you play for the consonance.

In the short, non-stop Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Ear was impressed by how the Pro Arte teased out the remnants of late Russian Romanticism that creep into the mostly modernist works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Also remarkable was how the Pro Arte highlighted the structure and counterpoint that Shostakovich, a devotee of Bach, brought to his modernism. This seemed a softer and more lyrical Shostakovich, less strident or percussive, than you often hear. And the approach worked beautifully to engage the listener.

And then came the grand finale done grandly: the late Beethoven Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The quartet unraveled the often perplexing and thick texture; the epic length; and the forward-looking compositional methods.

The Pro Arte used a low-key and restrained approach that only highlighted the heart-rending lyricism of the “Heiliger Dangesang,” or Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving, that the aging Beethoven composed when he had recovered from what he thought might be a fatal illness.

How fitting! The perfectly planned program started with one dawn by the teacher and ended with another dawn by the student.

Madison keeps getting more new chamber music groups, all very accomplished and all very good. But the Pro Arte Quartet — now in its 106th season of existence and its 78th season in residence at the UW-Madison — is still tops. As one fan said in near disbelief, “That concert was out of this world.” He wasn’t alone as the performance drew a prolonged standing ovation and loud bravos from the two-thirds house.

When it comes to chamber music, you just can’t do better than the Pro Arte Quartet. It’s that simple. With such quality and affordability, the Pro Arte should always be playing to a full house.

The Pro Arte Quartet will repeat the same program on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, at 12:30 p.m. for “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.” Admission to the Brittingham Gallery 3 performance space is free, and the concert will be streamed live. Go here for details and a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-10-7-18/

And the dates and times — without programs — of future Pro Arte Quartet concerts can be found here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/


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