The Well-Tempered Ear

Does Wisconsin Public Radio play too much harp music?

March 26, 2022
7 Comments

PLEASE NOTE: Due to a technical glitch, the following commentary was posted briefly yesterday and then withdrawn. That also disabled the commentary function temporarily. Once the glitch is solved, The Ear will post it again. That means some of you will get it twice. I apologize for any inconvenience. And to the fans who have kindly greeted my return, heartfelt thanks. I will be posting more details about the use and frequency of this blog in the near future.

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Can’t help it.

The harp always reminds The Ear of a giant egg slicer.

Still, The Ear loves the sound of the harp — in the right works.

That usually means when it is blended into orchestral works (Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler come to mind) and chamber music works (Debussy and Ravel come to mind).

But when it comes to solo harp and harp concertos, no thanks. Barring some Baroque music and Classical works — Handel’s concerti grossi and Mozart’s “Brunch” Concerto for Flute and Harp — he’ll pass for the most part.

So much harp music, both original and arranged, just sounds second-rate or worse. Can anyone name a masterpiece for the solo harp written by a great composer? And I don’t mean Louis Spohr who composed for his harpist wife.

The solo harp repertoire is very small, hence the need for so many transcriptions.

That’s a problem.

The harp tends to make music for other instruments sound so .. so … so pleasant! Even when the original is dramatic, it’s all pluck pluck, twang twang, zing zing. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of J.S. Bach’s mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Organ played on the harp.

So, The Ear asks, why has Wisconsin Public Radio started playing so much harp music on almost every show? (Below is WPR host, accomplished harpist and harp evangelist Ruthanne Bessman, who often includes harp music in her Saturday Morning program “Classics by Request.”)

Is it because the public really loves hearing the harp so much?

Is it because the radio show hosts do?

Do listener surveys indicate a preference for the harp?

Does the covid pandemic play a role in seeking bland but soothing music?

What do you think?

Do you like or even crave harp music?

Do you think WPR is programming too much harp music these days?

Too little?

Or the right amount?

Leave a comment, please.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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