The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will solo in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Music by Richard Strauss and Steven Stucky complete the program.

March 29, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

World-renowned pianist Garrick Ohlsson returns to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) this Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The program, conducted by longtime MSO music director John DeMain, features dramatic music by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss. The concert will also feature a first-ever performance by the MSO of a symphony by the recently deceased Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Steven Stucky.

Garrick Ohlsson (below, in a photo by Paul Body) will perform one of the best-loved pieces in the Romantic piano concerto repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ powerful Piano Concerto No. 1. Ohlsson impressed Madison audiences in 2008 and 2012 with his thrilling performances of concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.

Garrick Ohlsson 2 CR Paul Body

Steven Stucky’s intricate and intriguing Symphony No. 1 kicks off the concert program, followed by Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan, a work recounting the life and death of the eponymous fictional character through brazenly virtuosic flair matched by tender romantic melodies.

The concerts are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For ticket details, see below.

Garrick Ohlsson (below) has been a commanding presence in the piano world since winning the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970. A proponent of chamber music, Ohlsson has collaborated with the Cleveland, Emerson, Takács and Tokyo string quartets. Known for his masterly interpretations of Chopin, Ohlsson has over 80 concertos in his repertoire, including several commissioned for him.

Garrick Ohlsson

Steven Stucky (below) composed his Symphony No. 1 as part of a joint commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, and it premiered in 2012. Described by the composer as “a single expanse of music that travels through a series of emotional landscapes”, this concise work consists of four movements played without a break. Stucky just died on Feb. 14, 2016.

Steven Stucky with piano

The tone poem Don Juan by Richard Strauss (below) opens in breathtaking fashion with a flurry of strings and brass, as the hero leaps to the stage. Technically challenging and theatrical, the work vividly recounts Don Juan’s exploits, as well as his downfall.

Richard Strauss old CR H. Hoffmann Ulstein Biulderdienst

The first major orchestral work, Piano Concerto No. 1, by Johannes Brahms (below) casts the piano and orchestra as equal partners working together to develop musical ideas. Written in D minor, this piece captures the composer’s grief over the breakdown and eventual death in a mental asylum of his friend Robert Schumann. You can hear pianist Emil Gilels play the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.

brahmsBW

One hour before each performance, Susan Cook (below), the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and Professor of Musicology, will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience.

Susan C. Cook UW SOM BW CR Michael Forster Rothbart

More background on the music can also be found in the Program Notes, written by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen at: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/ohlsson

Single Tickets are $16 to $85 each, available via www.madisonsymphony.org/ohlsson , the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 15 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information visit, www.madisonsymphony.org/groups

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $12 or $15 tickets. More information is at: www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the April concerts was provided by NBC15, Diane Ballweg, BMO Private Bank, and Fred and Mary Mohs. Additional funding was provided by Boardman & Clark LLP; Dan and Natalie Erdman; J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.; Nick and Judith Topitzes; WPS Health Solutions; and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Classical music: CAN YOU NAME THAT TUNE? The Ear did at the movies — and passes it along

December 29, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s officially winter.

Christmas and other holidays except New Year’s are over or close to over.

Winter break is taking place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other schools.

All that makes it a good time to see movies.

So there The Ear was, sitting in one of the cinemas at Sundance 608 on the near west wide in Hilldale Mall.

Before the movie and the previews began, lovely piano music was playing.

What is that? someone asked quietly.

The Ear wishes that maybe Sundance could find a way to show the composer, work and performer on some section of the screen that also shows advertisements.

That’s because The Ear has also heard other works there by Johann Sebastian Bach as well as a mazurka and a nocturne by Frederic Chopin. And he wants other movie-goers to know what they are hearing.

Anyway, this time it was  a beautiful but rarely heard piece that The Ear recognized right away.

It is the transcription or reworking in B minor by Alexander Siloti (below) of the prelude in E minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. 

It is a gorgeously poignant Romantic piece by an accomplished Russian musician and pianist.

Alexander Siloti 

It is so hauntingly beautiful.

And it is useful as well.

It is really the same piece of music repeated twice. That makes it serve as a small and slow etude, a study in voicing of first the right hand and then the left hand.

The piece also makes the player coordinate and strengthen the fourth and fifth fingers on the right hand, and execute wide arpeggios in the left hand with an emphasis on the thumb as the carrier of a melody.

And like so much of Bach’s music, it is also an etude in the evenness of all those endless sixteenth notes — the stream that the word “Bach” means in German. What a fitting name for the composer whose flow of music was endless!

All in all, it is a great little miniature that deserves to be learned and performed more frequently. It has even been used by some major piano competition winners as a calming change-of-pace piece, a way to get into or out of the zone.

Just listen to it in the hands of a master, as the late Emil Gilels plays it in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where Siloti himself was a teacher of the famous pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff  (who is seen below on the right with Siloti on the left).

Alexander Siloti and Sergei Rachmaninov

First, here is the Bach original played by Glenn Gould:

And here is the live performance of Siloti’s reworking and transcription by Gilels:

What do you think of the work and the performance (read the listener comments on YouTube)?

Do you have favorite Bach transcriptions for the piano?

Other classical music you hear in movie theaters?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter was born 100 years ago yesterday. Here is a short but comprehensive memoir and appreciation with a lot of biographical information and a good critical appraisal of his playing.

March 21, 2015
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday — Friday, March 20, 2015 – brought us the first day of spring.

It also marked the centennial of the birth of the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (below).

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter was such a complex and towering figure that it would take a book to really do justice to him and to his career.

But the following essay by Steve Wigler for the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog on NPR (National Public Radio) does an excellent job for a short-form piece of criticism.

With one exception that gets no mention.

We now know beyond question that Richter (below) was a gay man who was forced by the Soviet government into a marriage of convenience and camouflage.

Somehow that information seems particularly pertinent to The Ear, given the growing acceptance of LGBT people and of marriage equality.

richterwithcross1

Still, Wigler’s essay is an excellent read and includes a YouTube video – there are many, many YouTube videos of Richter, who had an immense repertoire, playing. This video is of a live performance by Richter in which he plays the last movement of the first piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

You can hear the power and energy, the subtleties and excitement, to say nothing of the originality of interpretation, that Richter brought to music.

Richterconcerto

Enjoy it -– and tell us if you ever heard Richter live and what is your favorite performance by Sviatoslav Richter with a link to a YouTube video is possible.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/03/19/393778706/sviatoslav-richter-the-pianist-who-made-the-earth-move

 


Classical music: The Ear catches up again. This time he takes in a terrific evening sampler of Edvard Grieg at Taliesin in Spring Green. Plus, here is more news from Day 3 of WYSO’s tour in Argentina.

July 27, 2014
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Here is the daily alert for the tour though Aug. 3 by Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) in Argentina. Here is a link to the latest news from Day 3: www.wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

As I said yesterday, The Ear is finally getting a chance to catch up on some old business, now that live concerts have quieted down a bit for a while.

I have another short review for today.

THE EAR HEARS A GREAT GRIEG SAMPLER AT TALIESIN

Earlier this month, The Ear found himself wondering: Why don’t we hear more music by Edvard Grieg?

Well, we know that famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright -– better known to his cult-like following as Mr. Wright –- much preferred the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Wright1

Beethoven big

Makes sense. One big and difficult ego attracted to another big and difficult ego. One would-be artistic titan wanting to cloak himself in the mantle of another.

But nevertheless on July 14 -– forget Bastille Day — the Hillside Theater (below) at Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green saw an evening sampler of the 19th-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, and some other Scandinavian composers, performed, thanks to the Rural Musicians Forum and its director Kent Mayfield.

taliesin_hillside2

Called “Songs of Norway,” the program featured the kind of variety that The Ear would like to see in more concert programming: a dozen or so songs; 10 solo piano pieces from the “Lyric Pieces”; and the Sonata No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13, for violin and piano.

I found the music somewhat uneven, but never bad. And all the performances, turned in by three outstanding musicians (below), proved quite satisfying.

3 Grieg musicians

University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music soprano Mimmi Fulmer (below) showed fine control and tone while singing songs both a cappella and with the piano. Moreover, her Norwegian diction and pronunciation were quite good, or so I was told by a native Norwegian speaker.

Mimmi Fulmer at Taliesin 2014

Pianist Michael Keller, a retired professor from UW-Stevens Point, performed admirably both as soloist and accompanist or collaborator. He excelled at conveying the quickly changing moods of miniature Lyric Pieces, of which he played 10 contrasting ones.

Michael Keller playing

And violinist Stephen Bjella, an artist-in-residence at the UW-Stevens Point, played the more ambitious violin sonata with conviction and aplomb.

steven bjella norway

Now truth be told, Edvard Grieg’s music is no match for the achievement of Bach. Or Beethoven. Or Mozart. Or Haydn, Or Schubert. Or Schumann. Or Brahms. Or Mahler. And so on and so on. But The Ear thinks of Grieg as The Dvorak of the North. I think Claude Debussy once said his works were bonbons filled with snow.

That doesn’t mean his music is without value. His “salon”-like music certainly is enjoyable and worth hearing more often. Major artists like pianists Arthur Rubinstein, Emil Gilels and Stephen Hough play his Lyric Pieces and included several in their active repertoire. I think the violinist Jascha Heifetz also liked his three violin sonatas. And his songs are too rarely heard, perhaps because of the difficulty of singing Norwegian instead of German and French, Italian and English. Plus, the Emerson Quartet won a Grammy with his one string quartet.

edvard grieg

So this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert that reminded The Ear that the music of Grieg deserves to be heard more often in live performance than it currently is. Just listen to the lovely Nocturne, played by a contestant in the Grieg Piano Competition, in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Thanks go to Kent Williams (below top), to the Rural Musicians Forum –- which he directs and which is presenting a FREE tango quintet this Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Unity Chapel in Spring Green –- to Taliesin and especially to the three performers as well as to the full house (below bottom) that makes such a proposal all the more feasible and appealing.

Kent Mayfield at Taliesin

Grieg audience

Hear more music by Edvard Grieg?

As the late Eileen Stritch would sing: “I’ll Drink to That.”

Better break out the ice water.

 

 

 

 

 


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – Live in a Moscow concert, the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels performs as an encore the haunting, poignant and beautiful Prelude in B minor, a transcription by Alexander Siloti of an original by Johann Sebastian Bach.

August 23, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of transcriptions of Johann Sebastian Bach (below) on the piano. You know how these things go in spurts.

Bach1

As I have said before, transcription is a time-honored practice, especially for Baroque composers.

Most often, the transcriptions are based on preludes and fugues, passacaglia, toccatas, chorale preludes and movements from the cantatas.

But I have found that far too many transcriptions get too grand for my taste – too orchestral and powerful with too much emphasis on deep bass octaves and too many thick chords. The piano is not a pipe organ, which is part of its virtue.

I prefer that the transcribers preserve at least some of the transparency of the original Bach.

Which is one reason why I like the transcription in B minor by Alexander Siloti (below) of a prelude in E minor from the first book of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Siloti basically took a motif and developed in into a separate piece.

Alexander Siloti

It is so hauntingly beautiful.

Plus it is useful as well as beautiful.

Having played it myself – or at least played at it — I can tell you that it is harder to pull off than it sounds. Siloti’s transcription is really the same short piece of music repeated twice. So it serves as an etude, a study in voicing of first the right hand and then the left hand.

It is also a question of coordinating and strengthening the   fourth and fifth fingers on the right hand, and the wide, rolled arpeggios in the left hand with an emphasis on the thumb as the carrier of a melody.

And like so much of Bach’s music, it is also an etude in the evenness of all those sixteenth notes.

I’ll bet a lot of his students and subsequent piano students at the Moscow Conservatory benefitted from practicing and playing this gorgeous miniature that some artists use as effective encore, bringing a concert to a quiet and soulful close.

All in all, it is a great little miniature that deserves to be heard, learned and performed more frequently.

Just listen to it in the hands of a master, as the late and great Emil Gilels plays it in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where Siloti himself was a teacher of the great pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (seen below on the right, with Siloti on the left).

Alexander Siloti and Sergei  Rachmaninov

First, here is the Bach original, with the fugue, played in a YouTube video by Friedrich Gulda, a teacher of Martha Argerich:

And here is the live performance by Gilels:

What do you think of the work and the performance (read the listener comments on YouTube)?

Do you have favorite Bach transcriptions for the piano?

What do you look for in a piano transcription of Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What are your favorite warhorses? The Ear says warhorses need defending and performing, and also thinks Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is far superior to his Second.

September 30, 2012
9 Comments

ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on www.npr.org. Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/28/161964987/gustavo-dudamel-on-the-magic-of-stravinskys-crazy-music

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).

I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.

The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.

And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).

But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.

And I think for good reason.

One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.

I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.

It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.

The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.

The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.

But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.

What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.

If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.

It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.

Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.

So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?

The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.

I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?

Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.

But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them

Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.


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