The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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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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Classical music: Is Prokofiev more Romantic than modernist? Hear for yourself at the concert Friday night by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and violinist Giora Schmidt. Plus, the UW Symphony Orchestra performs a FREE concert Thursday night

February 21, 2018
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ALERTS: This Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform a FREE concert under the baton of alumnus and guest conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky, the founder and director of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO).  The program features the Symphony No. 5 by Franz Schubert; “Entr’acte” by Caroline Shaw; and the “Holberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg.

The week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features guitarist Steve Waugh and flutist Sridhar Bagavathula playing music by Frederic Chopin, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Francisco Tarrega, Francois Morel and Jerome Kern. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes the frame helps to define the picture, to reveal or at least reinforce the picture’s meaning.

Such is the case with this Friday night’s appealing and stand-out concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Sewell and Israeli violin soloist Giora Schmidt (below, in a photo by David Getzschman).

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in The Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 201 State Street.

Tickets are $15-$80 with student tickets available for $10. For more information about the performers and the program, as well as how to obtain tickets, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-3/

The program features the “Petite Symphonie” (Small Symphony) for winds by the Romantic French composer Charles Gounod (below), who is much better known for and more often performed for his operas “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Then there is the melodic, popular and often performed Serenade for Strings by the Russian arch-Romantic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (below). Like so much Tchaikovsky – both his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto, now staples of the repertoire, were deemed unplayable when first composed – the Serenade can  sound less challenging than it really is.

In between comes a modern masterpiece that The Ear is especially fond of: The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev (below).

And that is where it gets especially interesting.

Prokofiev is often lumped together with his Russian contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (below). Both were virtuoso pianists. Both faced hardships from the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. And while it is true that some of Prokofiev’s music shares a certain spikiness as well as harmonic darkness and dissonance with that of his contemporary, the pairing can be misleading.

To The Ear, much more — maybe even most — of Prokofiev’s music shares a lot more with the late Russian Romantics, including Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Roughly and with some exceptions, he sees Prokofiev as modern Russia’s Mozart for his melodic clarity, and Shostakovich as modern Russia’s Beethoven for his harmonic thickness.

The Ear doesn’t know if that same point is intended and was in mind when maestro Andrew Sewell (below) set up the concert, but he suspects it was because Sewell is a canny and intelligent programmer.

But intentional or not, no matter: the point stands.

If a single moment offers proof, The Ear would single out the opening of the slow movement of the Prokofiev concerto.

It has a beautiful melodic line, moving harmonies and a hypnotic clock-like rhythm to a theme-and-variation development that sounds unmistakably modern but accessibly modern in the same way that the never-fail Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber does.

You can hear the second movement in a YouTube video at the bottom and make up your own mind. It is performed by the way by the great David Oistrakh for whom Prokofiev composed the concerto.

Suffice it to say that The Ear has never heard that movement without the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up, much like happens with the famous 18th Variation in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or the opening of the first and second movements of the Barber Violin Concerto.

If you know that music by Prokofiev, you will be happy you hear it again. And if you don’t already know it, you will be forever grateful to have made its acquaintance.

Anyway, The Ear will assume that the programming was deliberate and establishes for the audience a context for the Prokofiev, which is the most important and substantial work on the program.

And Giora Schmidt (below),k who is making his Madison debut, certainly sounds like the kind of virtuoso who will do justice to the work. Just read the critics’ raves on his website:

https://www.gioraschmidt.com


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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


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