The Well-Tempered Ear

NPR names relevant classical albums in a musical Diary of the Plague Year of the pandemic, racial protests, wildfires and hurricanes

December 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For an unusual and difficult year, NPR (National Public Radio) and critic Tom Huizenga have found a new and unusual way to recommend this past year’s top classical music recordings.

On the  “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR, Huizenga kept a personal month-by-month diary of “music and mayhem.”

For last February, for example, this ancient image of The Dance of Death inspired contemporary composer Thomas Adès to compose his own “Totentanz” or Dance of Death. (You can hear an excerpt from the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Some of the thematically-related music is modern or contemporary, some of it is from the Baroque or Classical era.

In June, as protests against the death of George Floyd (below top) flared up and spread worldwide, NPR names a recording of the “Negro Folk Symphony” by African-American composers William Dawson and Ulysses Kay (below bottom), thereby helping to rediscover Black composers whose works have been overlooked and neglected in the concert hall and the recording studio.

Devastating wildfires on the West Coast, Presidential impeachment and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast also found their way into the choices of music to listen to.

It is an unusual approach, but The Ear thinks it works.

See and hear for yourself by going to the sonic diary and listening to the samples provided.

Here is a link to the NPR album diary: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/12/21/947149286/music-and-mayhem-a-diary-of-classical-albums-for-a-troubled-2020

But many roads, if not all, lead to Rome, as they say.

What is also interesting is that a number of the NPR choices overlap with ones listed by music critics of The New York Times as the 25 best classical albums of 2020.

Some choices also are found on the list of the nominations for the Grammy Awards that will be given out at the end of January.

In other words, the NPR diary can also serve as yet another holiday gift guide if you have gift cards or money to buy some new and notable CDs, and are looking for recommendations.

Here is a link to the Times’ choices, which you can also find with commentary and a local angle, in yesterday’s blog post: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/12/27/the-new-york-times-names-the-top-25-classical-recordings-of-2020-and-includes-sample-tracks/

And here is a list to the Grammy nominations: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

What do you think of the NPR musical diary of the plague year?

Do you find it informative? Accurate? Interesting? Useful?

Would you have different choices of music to express the traumatic events of the past year?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more?

April 15, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Rediscovering the music of composer Florence Price is a great way to start the celebration of Black History Month

February 3, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

February is Black History Month.

There are a lot of African-American performers and composers to emphasize during the month. Check out this exhaustive listing – conveniently organized into categories such as composers, conductors and pianists — in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:African-American_classical_musicians

But this year one of the best ways to mark the event is to rediscover the composer Florence Price (below, in photos from the University of Arkansas Libraries).

Much of her work was until recently hidden in 30 boxes in her abandoned and dilapidated summer home located 70 miles south of Chicago.

A good introduction to Price (1887-1953) – who was famous in her day and was the first African-American woman composer to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — can be found in the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR).

https://www.npr.org/2019/01/21/686622572/revisiting-the-pioneering-composer-florence-price

Here is a link to an excerpt from a new Albany recording of her two violin concertos:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/09/584312486/songs-we-love-florence-price-violin-concerto-no-2

And if you want to hear more of what her music sounds like check out the YouTube video at the bottom that has excerpts from the new Naxos recording, in the American Classics line, with her Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4.

You can also find quite a bit more of Price’s music, including a piano concerto, a piano sonata and orchestral suites, on YouTube.


Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Longtime NPR host Robert Siegel brought his love of classical music to “All Things Considered.” Here are 10 interviews and some background to mark his recent retirement

January 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you are a fan of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio – and The Ear certainly is – you probably already know not to listen for veteran host Robert Siegel (below) on this afternoon’s broadcast.

Or any other ATC broadcast in the future.

That is because last Friday afternoon Siegel had his last sign-off. He retired after spending 41 years with NPR – the first 10 as a reporter, including as a London correspondent, and the last 31 as a host of the prize-winning afternoon news and features magazine “All Things Considered,” which, by the way, was created by Jack Mitchell, who later came to teach Mass Communications at the UW-Madison.

There will be much to miss about Siegel. His qualities included a calming voice, a ready laugh, fairness and objectivity, a convivial studio presence and sharp but respectful interviewing skills.

One of the things that The Ear hopes will survive Siegel’s departure is the much-needed public attention he brought to classical music, which he loved and which the other media today so often ignore.

The mark his retirement, NPR classical music blogger Tom Huizenga compiled a list of 10 important interviews that Siegel conducted over the years. Then he put links to those interviews on an NPR blog.

Huizenga also got Siegel to open up about the formative influences that sparked his love for classical music. They included his young love for the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven — the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, which you can hear played by Alfred Brendel in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Siegel went on to cover big stars like superstar soprano Renee Fleming; medium stars like violinist Gil Shaham (below), who performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this month; and smaller and new stars like the iconoclast harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani.

He also covered a U.S. Army rifleman who performed a violin recital for Churchill and Truman, and the role that music by Beethoven played in Communist China.

And there are many, many more, for which classical music and we listeners owe a debt to Siegel.

Check it out and enjoy! Here is a link to that posting on the Deceptive Cadence blog:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/01/05/575906745/10-interviews-celebrating-robert-siegels-love-for-classical-music


Classical music: This Saturday and on Wednesday, Nov. 29, “Live From the Met in HD” will feature the Thomas Adès operatic remake of Luis Buñuel’s film “The Exterminating Angel.” Here is background and a review of the production

November 15, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Talk about the dinner party from Hell!

It may not be the most popular production this season staged by the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City, but it is certainly the newest as well as the most unusual and interesting production.

It is an operatic remake of Spanish Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1962 movie ‘The Exterminating Angel” (below is the poster).

You can see it in a live performance in the next “Live From the MET in HD” broadcast that will take place this coming Saturday afternoon with encore presentations on Wednesday afternoon and night.

On this Saturday, the show time is 11:55 a.m. at the Marcus Point Cinemas and the Marcus Palace in Sun Prairie. On Wednesday, Nov. 29 — postponed because next Wednesday is the day before Thanksgiving — the encore presentations at both cinemas are at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes. The opera will be sung in English with surtitles in German, Spanish and English.

Tickets are $22, $18 for seniors.

Here is a link to the Met’s website with information about the production, including a cast sheet and a synopsis:

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2017-18-Season/exterminating-angel-ades-tickets/

http://www.metopera.org/metoperafiles/season/2017-18/operas/exterminating_angel/hd_syn_Angel_global_dates.pdf

Here are stories that provide some background.

The first is a general background piece about the opera (below, in a photo by Eamon Hassan for The New York Times) from the “Deceptive Cadence” blog written for NPR or National Public Radio:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/11/05/561366931/luis-bu-uels-the-exterminating-angel-gets-an-off-kilter-adaption-from-screen-to-

Here are two guides, from The New York Times, with what you need to know about the opera and production:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/arts/music/thomas-ades-exterminating-angel-metropolitan-opera.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/arts/music/exterminating-angel-metropolitan-opera-thomas-ades-bunuel.html

And here is a rave review from Anthony Tommasini, the senior critic for The New York Times, who says if you only see one Met production this season, “The Exterminating Angel” should be it (below is a trailer on YouTube):

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/arts/music/exterminating-angel-review-metropolitan-opera.html


Classical music: Piano sensation Daniil Trifonov plays the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” by Chopin and makes it his own

October 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Take a world-class young pianist who is a global sensation and on his way to being a superstar who specializes in Chopin – Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (below).

Add in one of the best-known, most popular works by Frederic Chopin – his “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”

Blend in a warehouse loft and a ghostly, pop-like video with a dance-like narrative, all designed to promote Trifonov’s new CD – a budget double-disc set called “Chopin Evocations” (below).

The recording also features both piano concertos with some new orchestral touches by Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev as well as Chopin-influenced solo pieces by Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Samuel Barber, Peter Tchaikovsky and Federico Mompou.

The result may well be the most original, individual and persuasive versions of the famous piece you have ever heard of the almost clichéd piece.

Here is a link to the performance with the video, along with some fine background material from Tom Huizenga who writes the “Deceptive Cadence” blog for NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/10/04/555327012/a-young-lion-tamed-by-chopin-s-fantasy

What do you think of Trifonov’s playing in this and other works?

And what do you think about the video, which The Ear finds a bit over-the-top, both precious and schmaltzy, not at all in keeping with Chopin’s more austere and classical kind of Romanticism.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Famed pianist Byron Janis reached out for Chopin. Did Chopin return the favor from beyond the grave?

August 28, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, The Ear posted a story by pianist Jeremy Denk that, to his mind, did the best job ever of explaining why the music of Frederic Chopin appeals so universally.

Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/08/12/classical-music-pianist-jeremy-denk-explains-why-we-love-the-music-of-chopin/

Then more recently The Ear heard another story that involved the famed pianist Byron Janis (below), who studied with Vladimir Horowitz when he was a teenager.

He then went on to a spectacular virtuosic career before his hands were partially crippled by severe psoriatic arthritis. (You can hear him play less virtuosic music very poetically in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Through his piano playing and his library searches, Janis has reached out to Chopin, with some impressive results, including discovering lost manuscripts of famous waltzes.

But more surprising is Janis’ claim that, through a death mask, Chopin has returned the favor from beyond the grave and reached out to him in a paranormal or supernatural way.

The story was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR). It aired on the Saturday version of Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, and then was posted on the blog Deceptive Cadence.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/08/05/541575050/chopin-in-the-shadows-the-supernatural-adventures-of-byron-janis

What do you think?

Do you believe Byron Janis’ story and explanation?

What do you think of his Chopin playing?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Art and politics continue to clash as Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro cancels the U.S. tour by that country’s youth orchestra with superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel

August 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

In the Age of Trump, art and politics continue to increasingly mix and do battle.

One of the latest developments is the decision by President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump not to attend the Kennedy Center Honors – in order, they say, not to disrupt the awards ceremony with politics.

The move came after several recipients protested Trump and his policies.

But Trump’s America isn’t the only place such conflicts between art and politics are happening.

Take the case of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below, rehearsing the youth orchestra in a photo by Getty Images).

Dudamel was trained in the El Sistema program for youth music education and eventually led the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of his native country Venezuela before becoming the acclaimed music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he still pioneers music education for poor youth.

For a while, Dudamel’s critics protested his unwillingness go speak out about serious problems in his native country. (Below, you can hear Dudamel and the orchestra opening last season at Carnegie Hall.)

But recently Dudamel spoke out against the abuses of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who, amid many crises, has taken steps to consolidate his power as a dictator.

As retaliation, Maduro (below) cancelled a four-city tour of the U.S. by Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, although some of Maduro’s defenders cite the country’s dire financial situation.

Here is the story that appeared on the Deceptive Cadence blog by National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/08/21/545070643/venezuelan-president-cancels-gustavo-dudamel-s-american-tour


Classical music: Minimalist pioneer Steve Reich turns 80 and now finds his music in the mainstream. Plus, here is the program for the clavichord concert on Sunday

November 5, 2016
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ALERT: The Ear has received late notice of the program for the clavichord concert on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Gates of Heaven Synagogue in James Madison Park.

The music, to be played by early music specialist David Schrader of Roosevelt University in Chicago, includes the Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the Sonata in C Major, K. 330, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Sonata No. 44 in G minor by Franz Joseph Haydn; and the Sonata in A minor by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

For more information about the unusual concert, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/classical-music-a-rare-early-music-recital-on-a-locally-built-clavichord-is-this-sunday-afternoon-at-the-gates-of-heaven-synagogue/

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is another better-late-than-never posting.

Composer Steve Reich, along with Philip Glass, was one of the pioneering giants of minimalism in classical music, which in turn influenced even pop music icons such as David Bowie and Brian Eno. (You can hear Part 1 of his influential and hypnotic work “Drumming” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

steve-reich-2016

Last month Steve Reich turned 80.

Here is a story that traces the evolution of Reich’s career and art — including his reliance on rhythm, his use of percussion and words, and his exploration and rediscovery of Judaism — from the Deceptive Cadence blog for National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/10/09/496552301/steve-reich-at-80-the-phases-of-a-lifetime-in-music

And here is another story from The New York Times that covers Reich past, present and future:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/arts/music/steve-reich-at-80-still-plugged-in-still-plugging-away.html?_r=0

Enjoy!


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