The Well-Tempered Ear

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: Cliburn-winning pianist Kenneth Broberg makes his Madison debut with a FREE master class this evening and a recital Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos

November 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

A 25-year-old Minneapolis native, pianist Kenneth Broberg (below in a photo by Jeremy Enlow for The Cliburn) won the silver medal at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His 2017-2018 debut season as a Cliburn medalist included recital engagements in cities across the United States and Europe. His debut solo album was released by Decca Gold in August 2017.

This weekend, Broberg — whose playing The Ear finds impressively beautiful — makes his Madison debut at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on the far west side near West Towne Mall, as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Broberg will be featured in a master class with local young pianists and a solo recital.

For more about Broberg, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Broberg

And to the pianist’s home web site: https://kennybroberg.com

For more about the Salon Piano Series and the other three concerts this season, along with videos and reviews, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org

You can also hear Broberg play a lyrical and well-known Impromptu by Franz Schubert in the YouTube video at the bottom. He also has many other performances on YouTube, including some from the Cliburn competition.

Here are details about his appearances:

MASTER CLASS

Broberg will give a master class with local piano students THIS EVENING from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The literature being played is: Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 333, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Des Abends” (Evening) and “Grillen” (Whims) from “Fantasiestuecke (Fantasy Pieces) Op. 12, by Robert Schumann; and “Evocation” and “El Puerto” for the “Iberia” Suite by Isaac Albéniz

The master class is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.  Children must be age 6 and over to attend.

SOLO RECITAL

On Sunday afternoon, Nov. 4, at 4 p.m. Broberg will perform a solo recital at Farley’s House of Pianos in the main showroom.

The program includes: Prelude, Fugue and Variation, Op. 18, by Cesar Franck and Harold Bauer; Sonata in E minor  “Night Wind,” Op. 25, No. 2, by Nikolai Medtner; Toccata on “L’Homme armé” by Marc-André Hamelin; “Children’s Corner” Suite by Claude Debussy (movements are “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum; Jimbo’s Lullaby;  Serenade for the Doll; The Snow Is Dancing; The Little Shepherd; and Golliwog’s Cakewalk); and Three Preludes by George Gershwin.

Advance and online tickets are $45 for adults and $10 for students, and are available at brownpapertickets.com or at Farley’s House of Pianos (608) 271-2626. Tickets at the door are $50. More details are at SalonPianoSeries.org


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Classical music: Two new memoirs and a new recording are revealing but uneven in marking the centennial of Leonard Bernstein

July 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

We are only a month away from the centennial of the birthday of conductor, composer, educator and pianist Leonard Bernstein, which will be celebrated on Saturday, Aug. 25. Larry Wells, who is The Opera Guy for The Ear, recently assessed three of the many works – two new books of memoirs and one new recording — reexamining the life, career and legacy of Leonard Bernstein.

By Larry Wells

During this year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell), one need only consult https://leonardbernstein.com to find a day-by-day calendar of performances of his works.

As well as world-wide opportunities to hear his works -– even in Madison — there have been two recent books about Bernstein and a new recording of his final opera, “A Quiet Place,” that might be worth your time.

“A Quiet Place” was premiered in Houston as a sequel to his earlier opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” These first performances were conducted by our own John DeMain, the longtime artistic director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Madison Opera.

This nearly two-hour one-act opera dealing with incest, bisexuality, alcoholism and psychosis did not please the critics either for its libretto or for its music.

Soon thereafter Bernstein refashioned the opera by inserting “Trouble in Tahiti” in the middle and cutting some music. His subsequent recording has always baffled me because the music is so uninteresting and the casting is so haphazard.

The new recording on the Decca label (below) is of yet another version devised by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Reducing the orchestration to a chamber ensemble of 18 players, removing “Trouble in Tahiti,” and restoring some of the cuts, this recording by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra allows us to hear most of the original version of the opera.

(To read Sunderland’s analysis of his edition, check https://leonardbernstein.com/uploads/pages/files/PFR_2013_FW.pdf.)

The new recording is a valiant attempt by Nagano (below) to breathe some life into this dreary work, but I remain unconvinced that “A Quiet Place” is any more than a failed, final stab by a composer most of whose work I admire very much.

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s personal assistant, and his recent memoir ”On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” (below) goes a long way in explaining the failure of “A Quiet Place.” (You can hear the Postlude to Act I of “A Quiet Place” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To hear Harmon tell it, by this time in Bernstein’s life the maestro depended on drugs to go to sleep, drugs to keep himself awake, and alcohol in excess.  He also had a penchant for younger men.

The picture he paints of a troubled genius is rather pathetic, and Bernstein comes across as thoughtless, self-centered and exasperating. When Harmon (below, on the right with Bernstein) writes of his shock at being groped by Bernstein, I had to wonder what else he had expected. Still, it is an entertaining read.

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein has recently published  “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (below) Here we get a glimpse into Bernstein’s family life. The portrait of his troubled relationship with his long-suffering wife Felicia Montealegre is particularly interesting.

I heard Jamie Bernstein (below) speak recently in Tucson, and she told amazing anecdotes about Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman.

Little of that appears in the book. She assumes that the reader is interested in her own love life and her failed pop music career. I would have preferred to read more about the many fascinating people who surrounded Bernstein and less about her privileged and entitled life.

I have always been a big fan of Bernstein. I admired him as a conductor, teacher and composer. Anyone who has even a nominal interest in the man will find both of the recent memoirs at least diverting. The recording of “A Quiet Place,” however, is only for the true devotees.


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Classical music: Here is an NPR interview with British cellist sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason and an encore presentation of his performance at the Royal Wedding last weekend

May 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

So far, at least in the United States, the 19-year-old British sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason (below) has been more talked about than talked to.

But on Saturday afternoon, NPR interviewed him for “All Things Considered.”

Some interesting facts about him and his blossoming career and his inaugural recording for Decca Records (below) came out of the six–minute discussion and questions by host Michel Martin.

Especially impressive was how all the children in his family are accomplished classical musicians. Here is a video of them playing music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev together:

And in case you missed it the first around, also included is an encore presentation of the three pieces he played last Saturday at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Here is a link to the interview and the encore performance:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/21/613025939/cello-bae-sheku-kanneh-mason-wins-worldwide-fans-after-royal-wedding

And here is a YouTube video of Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing his own cello transcription of a the song “No Woman No Cry” by reggae legend Bob Marley, who was a mentor and inspiration to the young musician:


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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