The Well-Tempered Ear

The New York Times music critics suggest 10 must-hear online classical concerts during December

November 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Tomorrow is Dec. 1, 2020.

Lately, at the end of every month the music critics for The New York Times publish a list of 10 virtual and online classical concerts for the following month that they think deserve special attention.

Often – but not always — their choices feature the unusual: new music and world premieres; neglected repertoire; and lesser-known performers that most of us are not likely to hear locally.

The December choices, for example, include an oratorio “Perle Noire” (Black Pearl), by composer Tyshawn Sorey, about the famous African-American, Paris-based expat dancer Josephine Baker – she of the banana skirt (below). But she was more than just  a risqué dancer and entertainer. She fought in the French Resistance movement against the Nazis and was a civil rights champion.

But this list also includes seasonal fare such the holiday tradition by which the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs in one night all six Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (you can hear an excerpt in the YouTube video at the bottom); and other holiday celebrations such as a concert by the early music vocal group Tenet (below, in a photo by Nan Melville.)

But those suggestions do not take away from more local efforts and performances. 

The Ear is certain that those same critics would approve of supporting local musicians and music groups during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And there are many local offerings. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, the Madison Bach Musicians and Just Bach all have virtual online concerts scheduled for December.

You can check out their offerings at their websites and here on this blog as the month unfolds.

But if the Times’ choices interest you – and they should — here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/arts/music/classical-music-stream-december.html

Note that the blurbs show Eastern Time but also include how long the performances are posted for and links to the organizations presenting the concerts. 

Happy listening!

And Happy Holidays!

Do you have other online performances – local, regional, national or international — to suggest?

Please leave the necessary information in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

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

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

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio talks about the human quality of French music. She performs Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 on an all-French program with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

November 16, 2015
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The award-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) makes her solo debut with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in an all-French program this coming weekend.

sara sant'ambrogio 1

Sant’Ambrogio will solo in Camille Saint-Saëns’ stormy Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, a first-time performance of the work by the MSO under its music director and conductor John DeMain.

The opening piece, Maurice Ravel’s sensuous Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, showcases the classical simplicity and ultimate decadence of the waltz, and the colors of all the instruments in the orchestra.

ravel

Finally, the MSO will perform the groundbreaking Symphonie Fantastique by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (below). It is an unorthodox five-movement work that vividly captures an artist’s tortured infatuation and the haunted hallucinations of an opium trip.

berlioz

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio is an internationally-renowned soloist and founding member of the Eroica Trio (below). She launched her international career when she was a winner at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Violoncello Competition in Moscow, Russia. She holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Arias and Barcarolles.” She last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.

EroicaTrio4

Written in 1872, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 was instantly regarded as a masterpiece by the Paris public. Saint-Saëns rejected the standard concerto form in this work by interlinking the piece’s three movements into one continuous musical expanse, held together by the rich lyrical power of the cello.

The composer found the Cello Concerto No.1 difficult to write, so much so that he vowed never to compose for cello again; Saint-Saëns broke this vow 30 years later with his Cello Concerto No. 2.

One hour before each performance, John DeMain, music director and principal conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will lead a FREE 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes at http://www.madisonsymphony.org/santambrogio

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available at     www.madisonsymphony.org/singletickets and through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or call the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25 percent by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20 percent savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20 percent savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts cannot be combined.

Find more information at www.madisonsymphony.org.

Major funding for the November concerts is provided by Barbara Ryder, DeEtte Beilfuss-Eager and Leonard P. Eager, Jr., in memory of Karen “Lovey” Johnson, and Rosemarie Blancke. Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, Sunseed Research, LLC, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Sant’Ambrogio (below) recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

sara sant'ambrogio

Could you briefly bring readers up to date on your career since 2001 when you last appeared with the Madison Symphony Orchestra as part of the Eroica Trio and performed the Triple Concerto for piano trio? What are current and future major plans and projects?

Wow, a lot has happened since 2001! I had a son, Sebastian, who just turned 11. I’ve recorded for solo CDs, the complete Bach solo suites, the Chopin collection and “Dreaming,” which has had a number of tracks used in movie soundtracks such as the HBO movie “A Matter of Taste.” I’ve recorded another Eroica Trio CD, “An American Journey,” which was nominated for a Grammy award.

I’ve toured China and all over Asia, and also the Arabian peninsula, which was amazing and mind-blowing. Petra in Jordan was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. It has been a truly amazing 14 years!

There seems to be a revival or rediscovery going on of the works of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Why do you think that is?

Saint-Saens (below) has been grossly underrated in my view. His music has a wonderful mix of gorgeous melodies that speak to the human condition, sparkling virtuous pyrotechnics and a joie de vivre, which is just infectious! What’s not to love!

camille saint-saens younger

You are performing on an all-French program with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.” What elements or traits do identify as being typically French in classical music, and does Saint-Saëns fit the mold?

I think there is a lushness to French music that Saint-Saens shares. There is also a very human quality to the best of French music.

What would you like to say about the piece you will be performing in Madison, the Cello Concerto No. 1? What is typical or unusual about it?  What in particular would you like the public to listen to and notice?

Just to have a blast! The Saint-Saens starts with a bang and never lets up till the joyous end! (Note: You can hear it played by the late Russian cellist, conductor and human rights activist Mstislav Rostropovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

What else would you like to say?

I can’t wait to come back and play in Madison again. I had such a fantastic time playing there last time with my trio that the town loomed so large in my imagination, I had no idea until this interview that it had been 14 years since I was last there.

 


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