The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner talks about the importance of improvisation and his upcoming concerts at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on Sunday, and then next Tuesday and Wednesday.

August 21, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might think of it as a form of musical archaeology: Recovering, reclaiming and exhibiting the time-honored tradition of improvisation that for centuries was essential to composers and performers alike.

Improvisations on a Theme” is a watchword that shapes the programs of the 2013 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the concert presented by guest ensemble from New York, Open End (below), three of whose members will be in residence for a week at this summer’s festival.

Open End Ensemble BW

Essential to the Open End mission is the reclaiming of improvisation as the central skill of all musicians. Audiences at Open End concerts come to think of spontaneous creation as being part of a natural, ongoing dialogue between performers creating in the moment and a written body of work that continues to expand, to transform.

At home in venues from galleries and living rooms to concert halls, Open End seeks nothing less than to engage audiences in an experience that is wonderful, intimate, challenging and beautiful.

On this coming Sunday, August 25, at 4 p.m. Open End members Andrew Waggoner (violin), Caroline Stinson, (cello), and Molly Morkoski (piano) will present a program of recent works and improvisations in a program including music of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell (below), Anna Weesner, Andrew Waggoner, and Bach, concluding with the premiere of a new work by Waggoner.

henry cowell

Waggoner has been characterized by The New Yorker magazine as “the gifted practitioner of a complex but dramatic and vividly colored style” His new piano quintet, inspired by the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, was written this summer for the 2013 Token Creek Festival and is dedicated to Co-Artistic Directors John and Rose Mary Harbison.

Then at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 27, and Wednesday, August 28, the Open End members will also participate in one of the Festival’s program of Shakespeare in scenes and songs. The program opens with the premiere of John Harbison’s “Invention on a Theme of Shakespeare” for solo cello and small ensemble, followed by scenes from Shakespeare plays accompanied by new incidental music, and songs and arias on texts from the same plays set by to music by composers from the Renaissance to the present day.

Songs will be offered by composers including Morley, Arne, and Henry Purcell; Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf; and Francis Poulenc, Frank Bridge, Michael Tippett and John Harbison.

Shakespeare color

All performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended. 

TokenCreekbarn interior

Concert tickets ($30, and $10 for students) may be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.

More information about the Token Creek Festival can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org

Violinist-composer Andrew Waggoner (below) recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Andrew Waggoner

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work to people who don’t know you or haven’t heard about you?

I think the best way for people to approach me and my music is to know going into it is that the two paramount values for me in any musical exchange are strangeness and beauty.

I say “strangeness” because the most arresting, durable encounters we have with creative work are marked by a level of confusion, or of the numinous, of something that immediately strikes us as “other,” but that, hopefully, the work itself gives us the tools to sort out over the course of the experience.

“Beauty” is perhaps a little more self-evident, but it can manifest in myriad ways, of course, including beauty of form, of shape or dramatic arc. Much of the music I love most (J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington (below), Miles Davis, Harbison (really!), Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez) moves me at the level of the big shape as much as at that of surface sensuality.

That said, sensuality is hugely important to me, and when I feel I’ve found a unity of shape and surface beauty that makes a listener want to stay with a piece long enough to figure out where its strangeness is coming from and what it means, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. This doesn’t happen all the time, of course.

Duke Ellington at piano

What are the guiding principles – improvisation — and the performance goals behind the Open End Ensemble? How do they reflect your opinion of the state of contemporary classical music today?

The thing we most wanted with Open End was to have a group that played like a group — always the same players — and that could move easily between written-out music and free improvisation and not miss a beat.

We wanted the audience to hear the improvisations as pieces, and to hear the pieces as having the same level of listening and spontaneous response as the improvs. We make an issue of improv, in part, in order to get the audience to the point where they no longer hear it as unusual.

With regard to the state of things today, I’d just say that the only criterion we bring to programming a piece is whether or not we like it. If we believe in it, we play it. We have the luxury of not taking things on for any purpose other than what we want a program to sound like, how we want it to move, to flow.

If there are specific contemporary currents that seem not to flow through our programs, it’s most likely because we’re not interested in them.

What would you like the general public to know about your performances and specific programs (Ives, Cowell, Weesner, Waggoner’ world premiere and Bach; also Harbison’s Shakespeare music) and works at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival?

We like programs that mix contemporary works with 20th-century classics, along with different instrumental combinations that provide relief and perspective on each other.

In this way we’re no different from anyone else, it must be said, except that, again, there are no “isms” guiding our programming, so we can be very free about the kinds of combinations we find.

So the works by Charles Ives and Henry Cowell make a natural pair (culturally and temperamentally, and in their dogged sense of exploration), and they provide a nice come-down from the energy of the work by Anna Weesner (below), which is volcanic.

anna weesner

The improvs will work in some way yet to be discovered to bridge these different expressive worlds, with John and Rosie’s Bach offering both a stylistic distance and expressive weight specific to it — though listeners will recognize Cowell’s affectionate nod to Bach in his little pieces, so to some degree we go in widening gyres here.

The premiere of my own work, “Floating Bridge,” is a very personal homage to John and Rosie, to John and my (and Carrie’s) shared love of the award-wining Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, to the festival’s rural setting, and to Ellen Singer, a dear friend at our own rural festival, Weekend of Chamber Music, whom we lost this past spring. All these threads were evoked for me and somehow float together in Munro’s story, also called “Floating Bridge.”

The Shakespeare program will mash-up an astonishingly diverse group of Shakespeare songs with dramatic monologues, acted by Madison native Allison Shaffer (below), with Carrie and me improvising, joined by John at the piano. We’ve done this kind of thing a lot, and we love it. We have no idea how the musical environment for the texts will take shape. We’ll find that in the moment.

Allison Schaffer

How would you characterize the style and interest of your own compositions and particularly the work that you will premiere here in Madison?

My own work, as I mentioned earlier, hopefully offers the listener something strange and compelling that is made comprehensible through a surface that is beautiful, and often sensual.

One person’s beauty is another’s caterwauling, of course, so not everyone will hear this music in the same way I do. But I am working to make the music as powerful and communicative as possible, not by trying to anticipate everyone’s varied tastes and levels of musical experience, but simply by responding to my own work as a listener.

The old modernist dichotomy of composer vs. listener bores me, in part because it always was mostly, and has now become entirely, meaningless, and because it overlooks the obvious fact that composers are listeners too.

So that’s where I start with any piece: what do I want to hear, where do I want to go with this, how do I want this to make me feel? I can only really respond to those questions as a listener, as someone who will hear the piece in performance and judge it in those terms, not as the product of a wonderfully complex compositional process.

In terms of style, the composers referenced above have all had a profound effect on me. To that list, I’d add Copland and Messiaen; if one morphs all of those different characters (Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Messiaen, Miles Davis, Carter, Boulez, Harbison (below)) one might actually come up with something like Waggoner!

JohnHarbisonatpiano

What else would you like to say about yourself and the ensemble, about your programs and work, and about the festival?

We’re crazy excited to come out to Token Creek. For us it’s both an extension of our relationships to John and Rosie Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot)and to John’s music, and an expression of how we most love to work as a group: in intimate, imaginative settings, close to the audience, able to work with the energy they give us, to shape an experience that is site-specific. For us it’s really the ideal, and we get to do only a few times a year under very special circumstances. So this is a rare privilege.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot


Classical music: The Ear says goodbye and “Rest in Peace” to 22 prominent classical musicians who died in 2012.

December 29, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the sad duties of ushering in the New Year is saying goodbye to the old year and especially to the people we loved or respected who died last year. (A couple of days remain in 2012, but we can hope no other prominent clasiscal musicians pass away.)

When it comes to classical music, I can’t think of better round up of the classical musicians we lost than the one that was posted this past week by the famed New York City-based all-classical radio station WQXR. (Much of its programming can be streamed live in real time, including its annual end-of-the-year Classical Countdown through this weekend until midnight on New Year’s Eve that includes 105 audience favorites. Check its home page www.wqxr.org)

Not only does the WQXR obituaries offer fine portraits of the musicians, they also give their ages as well as a capsule summary of their careers with particular points of distinction.

Some of the names, from all genres, are all too familiar: baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below); composers Elliott Carter and Dave Brubeck; pianist Alexis Weissenberg and pianist-writer Charles Rosen, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (at bottom, singing Villa-Lobos). But there are many more who were also distinguished and who will be missed.

dietrich fischer-dieskau at height

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/blogs/wqxr-blog/2012/dec/26/memoriam-classical-musicians-who-died-2012-slideshow/slideshow/

Let us keep them in our memory and be thankful for the music and beauty they brought into this world, which so sorely needs that beauty.

If you know of someone who was left our,  please leave some remark or remembrance in the COMMENT section.

May the departed rest is peace as we greet 2013.


Classical music: Pianist-scholar Charles Rosen is dead at 85.

December 11, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Charles Rosen, the acclaimed concert pianist and award-winning author of books about music history, has died of cancer in New York City. He was 85.

Rosen (below, in a 2007 photo at his home by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times) was best known as a performer and music scholar who often recorded alternative versions of well-known works by such composers as Schumann. He also performed and recorded major works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin (at bottom), and he championed modern and contemporary composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter.

Charles Rosen in 2007 Sara Krulwich NY TImes

As an author, Rosen is best known for his work “The Classical Style” (below), which won a National Book Award in 1972. His other works include “The Romantic Generation,” “Sonata Forms” and “Piano Notes.

Charles Rosen The Classical Style

Rosen was an impressive figure who held a PhD in French from Princeton and who taught French at MIT before turning to music full-time. I have read much of what he wrote about music, and I heard him perform live with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, if I recall correctly.

I suspect he was rarely anyone’s favorite pianist in any given work, but he invariably turned in performances that made you think about the music and about other performances of it. (Below, Rosen performs at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2007 in a photo by Hiroyaki Ito for The New York Times,)

Charles Rosen performing in 2007 Hiroyaki Ito NY Times

Here is a long and detailed obituary from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/arts/music/charles-rosen-pianist-polymath-and-author-dies-at-85.html

Here is a New York Times profile of Rosen when he turned 80, five years ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/12/arts/music/12rose.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1355242913-C5nsl9EFS0p20qigJUcrBg

And here is a fine appreciation that aired on NPR”s “Morning Edition”:

http://www.npr.org/2012/12/11/166935092/classical-music-scholar-charles-rosen-dies-at-85

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/12/10/166876593/remembering-charles-rosen-a-prodigious-pianist-and-polymath


Classical music: Let us now praise American composer Elliott Carter, who has died at 103. Here are obituaries, remembrances and sound samples.

November 10, 2012
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It got largely lost in all the hullabaloo coverage of the Presidential Election, but there was other news that happened this past week.

A major piece of culture news is that the dean on American classical music composers, Elliott Carter, died last Monday at 103. Carter had won two Pulitzer Prizes and a host of other honors and awards.

Carter (below top, in his younger years) was a devout modernist who early on was known for the thorny difficulty and cerebral quality of his music – his string quartets (below bottom is the opening page of the score to String Quartet No. 2) were often said to be the most difficult ones ever written. But he apparently loosened up in his later years.

Makes up you wonder what Bach, Handel, Haydn , Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Brahms and many other great composers would have written, had they lived past 100.

To be honest, The Ear was never a big Elliott Carter fan. His music has its moments — some of them in the “Night Fantasies” for solo piano and the Cello Sonata — but is generally too serial and unlyrical for my taste. I’m more of a tunes guy, and for me his music generally lacks my kind of beauty – that moving quality that I look for in all art. Nonetheless, you can hear the masterful craft and original art that went into Carter’s music, whether it speaks deeply to you or not. (Below is Carter in 1989.)

There are some local ties to mention. For one, Sally Chisholm (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) who teaches viola at the University of Wisconsin School of Music and plays with the Pro Arte String Quartet, performed one of this string quartets before Carter to help mark his 100th birthday back in 2008 (below bottom is a New York Times photo with James Levine and Carter at a concert in Carnegie Hall celebrating his centennial.)

Some old media took notice of Carter’s death this past week. But I was particularly pleased to see how the new media, especially blogs and websites, offered information PLUS audio clips of musical performances and interviews given by Carter.

Here are the complete and comprehensive obituaries that ran in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/06/arts/music/elliott-carter-avant-garde-composer-dies-at-103.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/arts/music/elliott-carter-composer-and-master-of-gear-shifting.html?_r=0

Here is a terrific account from NPR’s outstanding classical music blog Deceptive Cadence:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/11/06/164364953/elliott-carter-giant-of-american-music-dies-at-103

Here is the story from the British Gramophone Magazine, along with the last interview Carter gave, conducted by cellist Alisa Weilerstein (below). Weilerstein, who has played in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, is also a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” who just released her performance, with conductor Daniel Barenboim, of Carter’s Cello Concerto paired with the popular Elgar Cello Concerto, on Decca Records:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/the-composer-elliott-carter-has-died

Here is the obituary and story of the famed BBC Music Magazine:

http://www.classical-music.com/news/american-composer-elliott-carter-dies-aged-103

And of course there are many more appreciations to be found on Google if you go and simply type in “Elliott Carter.”

While you do, here is some of Elliott Carter’s more popular and accessible music to listen to: the haunting “Symphony for Three Orchestras” from 1976 performed by Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (you can find lots more Carter on YouTube):


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