The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival starts this Friday and marks 30 years with jazz plus music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg and John Harbison

August 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this coming Friday, Aug. 16, and running through Sept. 1, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will mark its 30th anniversary with the theme of “Sanctuary.” (The festival takes place in a refurbished barn, below, at 4037 Highway 19 in DeForest.)


Add the festival directors: “The term ‘sanctuary’ attempts to capture in a single word something essential about what the festival has meant to players and listeners over all these years. From the start it aspired to offer something of retreat, an oasis, a place of refreshment and nourishment in art, both for musician participants who find a welcoming environment to “re-charge” their work, and for audience attendees who engage in and become a part of it.”

“In our small country barn,” writes prize-winning composer John Harbison (below top, in a photo by Tom Artin) who co-directs the festival with his violinist wife Rose Mary Harbison (below bottom, in a photo by Tom Artin), “we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of much chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout.

“Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live in the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music itself to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, just like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, to connect to the natural world, and to ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity — time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

The first two concerts, at 5 p.m., on Friday and Saturday nights, feature the return of a jazz cabaret featuring standard works in the Great American Songbook. For more information about the program and performers, as well as tickets, go to: www.tokencreekfestival.org or call (608) 241-2525.

Tickets for the two jazz concerts are $40 for the balcony and $45 for cafe seating. Tickets for the other concerts are $32 with a limited number of student tickets available for $12.

HERE IS THE LINEUP FOR THE REST OF THE FESTIVAL

Program 2: Music of Brahms at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Johannes Brahms is the only composer whose complete catalogue of chamber music is still in constant use.  This is due to his fastidious high standards, and to his ideal temperament for music played by smaller groups of players. His music is universally admired for the astounding combination of sheer craft and deep emotional impact.

The program includes the Regenlied (Rain Song), Op. 57 no. 3; Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78; the Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38; and the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. (The “Rain Song” is used as the theme of the last movement of the violin sonata. You can hear it performed by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang in the YouTube video at the bottom, which also features the score so that you can follow along.)

Performers are Edgewood College mezzo-soprano Kathleen Otterson (below top); violinist Rose Mary Harbison; violist Lila Brown (below second); cellist Rhonda Rider (below third, in a photo by Liz Linder); and pianist Janice Weber (below bottom).

Program 3: Then and Now, Words and Music – An 80th Birthday Tribute to John Harbison. Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Last February, when Madison launched a citywide celebration of co-artistic director John Harbison’s 80th birthday, bitter cold and deep snow made it impossible for the festival to open up The Barn and join in the festivities.

The Wednesday program – an intimate concert of words and music curated by the Harbisons — is the festival’s belated birthday tribute. Harbison will read from his new book about Johann Sebastian Bach, and Boston poet Lloyd Schwartz (below top) will offer a reading of his poems that are the basis of a song cycle to presented by baritone Simon Barrad (below bottom). The evening will include a discussion on setting text, “Poem to Song,” and the world premiere of new Harbison songs, still in progress, on poems of Gary Snyder.

The program includes: Selections from the Violin Sonata in B minor, with violinist Rose Mary Harbison, and “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Four Songs of Solitude” and “Nocturne” by John Harbison; the Violin Sonata in G Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Phantasy” for violin and piano by Arnold Schoenberg; the “SchwartzSongs” and “Four Poems for Robin” by John Harbison.

Program 4: The Piano , at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31, and Sunday, Sept. 1.

The closing program welcomes back husband-and-wife pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing together and as soloists.

Chuang (below top) is acclaimed by critics in the U.S. and abroad for performances of stunning virtuosity, refinement and communicative power. Levin (below bottom, in a photo by Clive Barda), who teaches at Harvard University, is revered for his Mozart completions and classical period improvisations.

Their program explores the question of the composer-performer — that is, composers who were also formidable pianists: Mozart, Ravel and Liszt.

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, arranged by the composer for chamber ensemble, and excerpts of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, written for Levin, will be performed. Also on the program are Mozart’s Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (completion by Robert Levin); Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”; and Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan.”

Other performers are: violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Rhapsodie String Quartet; violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Acord; cellist Karl Lavine, who is principal cello of both the  Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as the Chamber Music Director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO); and double bassist Ross Gilliland.


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Classical music: The New Milwaukee Consort performs Renaissance and early Baroque love songs this Monday night in Spring Green

August 3, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Rural Musicians Forum will present the New Milwaukee Consort in a program of Baroque love songs on this coming Monday, Aug. 5, at 7:30 p.m. at the Unity Chapel in Spring Green.

This group of professionals and experts in early music includes soprano Kristin Knutson (below top), who competed in the 2015 Handel Aria Competition  in Madison (in the YouTube video at the bottom);  cellist and viol player Charlie Rasmussen (below middle); and lutenist Tim Sterner Miller (below bottom). They will perform on period instruments, bringing audiences back in time to the courts and chambers of Italy, England and France.

The New Milwaukee Consort is dedicated to the music of the European Renaissance and Baroque eras, crafting intimate performances around stories in words and music that resonate across the centuries.

They particularly relish bringing lesser-known sounds of the 17th century to modern audiences, from the work of women composers such as Barbara Strozzi (below) to music from handwritten manuscripts documenting the early development of the cello and ongoing experiments on the lute.

This concert features music from the chamber cantatas of the Venetian singer and composer Strozzi to celebrate her 400th birthday as well as works by her compatriots Claudio Monteverdi and Taruinio Merula; Elizabethan songs by lutenist and composer John Dowland (below); and “airs de cour” (Court music) by French court composer Etienne Moulinie.

Interwoven with these vocal works are pieces for the lute by Dowland and his contemporary Nicholas Vallet; for the viola da gamba by Tobia Hume and Marin Marais (below); and for the cello by Giulio Ruvo, Francesco Supriani and Giuseppe Jacchini.

This is an opportunity to enjoy some of the most precious pieces of Renaissance and Baroque era in the beautiful Unity Chapel (below) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Chapel is located at 6597 County Highway T in Spring Green.

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


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Classical music: Are we hearing more Brahms? If so, why?

October 7, 2017
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear got to thinking about concerts, recordings and Wisconsin Public Radio programs over the past year and the ones coming up this season.

And it seems like there was a lot of music by Johannes Brahms (below), often given multiple performances – the “German” Requiem, the symphonies and concertos, the solo piano music, the string quintets and sextets, and the piano trios and other chamber music with piano.

This season alone, in Madison we will hear three performances of the famous Piano Quintet. Two of them will be in the usual version at the Wisconsin Union Theater (the Takacs Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson) and at Farley’s House of Pianos (the Pro Arte Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein), and, recently, the earlier two-piano version at Farley’s by Robert Plano and Paola Del Negro. (You can hear the gorgeous slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Now it is true that Brahms is one of the standard composers who never really go out of fashion, especially for the way he combined the craft and polyphony of Classicism with a Romantic sensibility. Not for nothing was he lumped in with Bach and Beethoven.

Also true is that Brahms is often described as “autumnal” and fits the concert season.

But not everyone loves Brahms. The British composer Benjamin Britten hated his music and the American crime writer James Ellroy also can’t stand Brahms.

Still, it seems to The Ear that we are hearing more than the usual amount of Brahms.

And if that is true, he wonders, why is it the case? Why does Brahms appeal so?

Is there something in Brahms that matches the times we live in?

Or perhaps something that reassures and consoles us about the times we live in?

Anyway, do you think we are hearing more Brahms?

And if you do, what do you think explains it?

Finally, if you like Brahms what is your favorite piece by Brahms?

Tell us in COMMENTS and provide a link to an audio or video clip is possible

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Was composer Igor Stravinsky gay or bisexual, as a new book by Robert Craft claims? And if he was, how much does it matter? Did it affect his music? Were New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe and other writers even-handed and fair in exploring the “issue”?

July 28, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

With the rising social and political acceptance of marriage equality, or same-sex marriage, it is hard not to imagine that there will also be even more interest in gay history and whether great and important figures from the past will be “outed” as gay, lesbian and bisexual.

That is especially true of the pioneering 20th-century Russian modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (1881-1972, below top) -– 2013 is the centennial of his landmark ballet score “Rite of Spring” – who has been “outed” in the new book “Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories” by 90-year-old Robert Craft (below bottom, on the right with Stravinsky on the left), who was the composer’s longtime friend and assistant.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

Robert Craft (right) with Igor Stravinsky

Specifically, Craft says, Stravinsky – who was married to women three times and was said to have been proud or even boastful of his heterosexuality  — had affairs with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov (below top), the oldest son of Stravinsky’s teacher, the famous Russian composer and orchestrator  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; with French composer Maurice Ravel (below middle, with Ravel on the left and Stravinsky on the right); and with Belgian composer Maurice Delage (below bottom).

andrey rimsky-korsakov

ravel and stravinsky

maurice delage

Perhaps the most comprehensive and careful or even conservative treatment of the questions raised by Craft and his book (below), which was published by the thriving Naxos Records, came in The New York Times through the treatment by reporter and critic Zachary Woolfe.

Robert Craft old w book NAXOS

Here is a link to that story by Zachary Woolfe (below):

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/arts/music/doubts-greet-claims-about-stravinskys-sexuality.html?_r=0

zachary woolfe ny times critic

Other writers and media outlets also covered the controversial story, which was bound to get attention, given the “virility” of Stravinsky’s most famous scores and the wide influence he had on modern music. Be sure to read the Comments sections, since you will there find many other points of view and debate from the “consumers.”

Here is a link to an excellent story on the radio website for the New York City radio station WQXR-FM. Be sure to read the many reader comments:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2013/jun/25/was-stravinsky-bisexual-if-he-was-so-what/

Here is another fine story from the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-stravinksy-craft-20130721,0,6906602.story

And here is how famed critic Norman Lebrecht (below) first treated the matter:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/06/was-stravinsky-ambisexual-while-writing-rite-of-spring.html

And then here is how Lebrecht later got pretty dour about Woolfe and the Times as well other critics  or questioners of Craft’s claims:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/07/the-new-york-times-gets-sniffy-about-stravinskys-retrosexuality.html

norman_lebrecht

One thing is for sure: Craft’s contentions and the validity of his proof as well as the effect of the claim will surely be analyzed and talked about a lot at the special Stravinsky festival in August at Bard College near New York City.

What do you think of the claim? True or false?

And if true, how much do you think it matters?

The Ear — who thinks almost all great art and great artists involve a real or symbolic transgression of sexual taboos — wants to hear.

So check out the sheer transgressive sensuality and even sexuality of the music and dance, with choreography by the famed PIna Bausch, and the dancers’ bodies in the YouTube video below:


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