The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music is good to listen to every day for a year? And why? Clemency Burton-Hill discusses her book “Year of Wonder” on PBS’ “Newshour”

March 23, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

What different pieces of classical music would be good to listen to every day of the year?

And what should you know about it?

Those are the simple but ambitious questions that the British writer Clemency Burton-Hill — who now works for the famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City — tackles in her book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day” (below).

You can get a sample by going to the book section of Amazon.com and looking inside the book. Just click on the Introduction for an overview and then click on some specifics dates to see how it works.

But recently Burton-Hill (below) also appeared on “The NewsHour” on PBS to talk about the book, where she explained her purpose and method, especially her intent to help expand the audience for classical music.

Her remarks impressed The Ear who has ordered a copy of her book and hopes to learn from it and maybe even pass along some lessons from it.

All the genres, all the great composers (dead and living) and most of the great works are covered, as are many other neglected composers and unknown works. So the book can be considered a terrific resource for music education for both beginners and those who are experienced.

Her commentaries are also a model of brevity and engaging interest.

All in all, “Year of Wonder” seems a supremely practical, unpretentious and informative guide to daily listening, especially given how many of these works – often they are shorter sections of larger works — can be found for free on YouTube. (In fact, a playlist of music featured in the book is available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in “Year of Wonder Playlist” into the search engine, then look to the upper right for a list. A sample is at the bottom. Or use this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wNTNEZYoHg&list=PLKPwLlyrD2y-1x-uKmUBzSOiAh83GhU7A

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a link to the television interview:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/embracing-classical-music-and-its-potential-for-sonic-salvation

The Ear hopes you find the interview both informative and useful.

Happy listening!


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Classical music: Combining a ticket to a live music performance with a book or recording that is tied to the concert’s program makes a great holiday gift

December 20, 2018
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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

The holidays seem to arrive earlier each year.

The Ear isn’t sure why that is.

Whatever the reason, a lot of holiday gift shopping can by now seem last-minute and somewhat frantic.

But if you are shopping for a classical music fan, you are in luck if you go local.

The best way to please the recipient and also to support the local arts is to give a ticket to a live concert – always the most powerful and exciting musical experience — perhaps coupled to a related book or recording. (Below is UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor in a photo by Michael R. Anderson).

This blog doesn’t have room to list separately all the many musical groups in the area. But here are some samples that might interest you.

Through Monday, Dec. 24, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is once again offering a special deal for the remainder of the season. Tickets to both the “Beyond the Score” program and the remaining four season concerts, including Mahler’s mammoth “Symphony of a Thousand,” have been reduced to two price ranges: $10 and $25 for the former; $25 and $50 for the latter.

For more information, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/holiday-tickets-sale/

If you want to see what other performers and presenters are offering – say, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Bach Musicians, the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Overture Center and the Madison Opera, to name just a few of the more prominent names – just go to Google and type in their name to search and go to their home page on the web.

Many of them have all sorts of other discounts for students, seniors, subscribers, groups and others.

Don’t forget that Madison features many FREE concerts, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

True, a few of the most attractive and gift-worthy UW concerts are ticketed ($17 for adults, $7 for UW students) – including the annual Schubertiade, the yearly recital by pianist Christopher Taylor and the world premiere of the new Viola Sonata by John Harbison (below). But you could offer to take someone to a free chamber music or orchestral concert and provide companionship, transportation and maybe even dinner.

Here is a link to the very busy lineup and informative previews at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music: https://www.music.wisc.edu

To top it off, you could add one of two outstanding local books The Ear puts at the top of the holiday gift guide.

The first is John Harbison’s “What Do We Make of Bach” (below top) which is short, very readable, thoroughly engaging and wonderfully informative in an autobiographical way that helps us celebrate both the 80th birthday of Harbison and the upcoming 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The second book, now in its second printing, is a comprehensive history of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) done by John W. Barker, who often writes for this blog as well as Isthmus.

Of course, a CD with one of the composers or works on a program also makes a fine complement, whether it is a Mahler symphony, a Bach suite or Schubert’s “Swan Songs” from his final year.

Finally, The Ear wants to know: What are your suggestions for a for holiday gift of classical music?

It could be a live concert or a recording, either something new or an old favorite.

It could be a particularly informative and enjoyable or entertaining book, including biographies of Leonard Bernstein (including one by his daughter Jamie Bernstein, below), whose centennial has been celebrated this season.

Over the next few days, The Ear will post suggestions  and Top 10 lists by professional critics. But in the end, it is the audience, the ordinary public, that many people want to hear from.

So perhaps you will leave your ideas in the COMMENT section.

Thank you! And have Happy Holidays — a Merry Christmas, a joyous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year.


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Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE 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

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/


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Classical music: Tucson celebrates the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Why not Madison?

February 17, 2018
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Editor’s note: Larry Wells, better known as The Opera Guy who writes for this blog, recently spent time in Tucson, Arizona, where he attended many events celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial.

Tucson isn’t alone. This fall has seen many similar celebrations, including those in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee. But curiously there has been little in Madison.

Perhaps that will change next season. At least this week will see a FREE concert by the UW-Madison Wind Ensemble this Wednesday night, Feb. 21, in Mills Hall. The mixed program with other composers features “Profanation” from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1.

Here is a link with more information and the program:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble-2/

And here are observations about the Tucson celebration:

By Larry Wells

I recently spent a few weeks in Tucson. Part of that time happily coincided with the annual Tucson Desert Song Festival which this year commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell).

I was able to attend 13 of the performances and was struck by the consistently intelligent programming, large audiences, and high performance standards.

Many of the events were held at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Some of these involved talented student and faculty singers performing Bernstein’s Broadway songs as well as his more serious vocal works. The venue also hosted outstanding recitals by Metropolitan Opera veterans Jennifer Johnson Cano (below top) and Lisette Oropesa (below bottom).

One of the highlights was a recital by dual pianists Steven Bleier (below top, on right) and Michael Barrett (below top, on left), founders of the New York Festival of Song. Their program included Bernstein’s final song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles” featuring the very talented Joshua Jeremiah (below middle) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (below bottom).

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra (below), under the direction of its new conductor José Luis Gomez,  filled the cavernous Tucson Music Hall for two performances of Bernstein’s underperformed Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish.” Joined by the symphony’s outstanding chorus, the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, and soprano Kelley Nassief this monumental work was electrifying. The many percussionists were given a good aerobic workout, and the audience seemed hypnotized.

The only flaw was the narration rewritten and delivered by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie. The original narration by the composer is a monologue between a man and his god. Ms. Bernstein’s narration changed the tone to that of a daughter speaking about her father.

For someone familiar with the work, I felt somewhat cheated that I was not hearing the work as it had been composed. Still it was a total delight to hear a live performance of a work that should be heard far more often than it is.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra offered a second program which featured a sparkling performance of Bernstein’s opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with the widely-praised, and rightly so, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (below in a photo by Dario Acosta).

Ballet Tucson offered a somewhat strange program featuring Bernstein songs beautifully performed by Cadie Jordan (below top) and David Margulis (below bottom, in a photo by Kristin Hoebermann). Sometimes they were accompanied by dancers and sometimes not.

Then, after a number of these songs, a recording came on of portions of the suite from Bernstein’s score for the film “On the Waterfront” with dancers performing a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” narrative. It didn’t seem to make any cohesive sense, but it was fun to watch and the quality of the music never faltered.

Two other large events were the Arizona Opera’s “Candide” and Tucson’s resident chorus True Concord’s MASS.

I attended the premiere of “Candide” (below) which was also performed in the vast Tucson Music Hall. I had only seen it performed once before, and that was the charming, witty, and intimate Harold Prince version. The Tucson version was one of the overlong operatic versions that featured additional musical numbers, which was a good thing, but wordy spoken dialogue that was unfortunately under-amplified. Therefore, unless someone was very familiar with the work, the production was a long string of seemingly unrelated musical numbers linked by incomprehensible spoken dialogue.

The dialogues themselves are very witty, but since they were not accompanied by supertitles as was the singing, the performance was seriously flawed. Still the singing was excellent, with special praise for Katrina Galka’s Cunegonde, and the staging was colorful and often amusing. Hopefully the sound issues were rectified for the following four performances. (You can hear the famous Overture to “Candide”– conducted by the composer —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

MASS (poster with scenes is below) was performed in what is termed as the ‘Chamber Version.’ I was apprehensive that somehow the musical content would be diminished, but my worries turned out to be unfounded and the performance was uniformly dynamic and engaging. True Concord is an outstanding choral group, and its leader Eric Holtan led a thoroughly engaging and moving performance of this monumental work. I was so taken by the first performance that I attended the second as well. Both performances filled the huge Centennial Hall.

Besides the orchestra and chorus the work features a celebrant, in this case the appropriately named Jubilant Sykes, an ensemble of vocal soloists, a boys chorus and dancers. The choreographers decided to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex work by having some of the dancers portray Rose, Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy as well as what I think was supposed to be the spirit of JFK. This was not part of the original work, and I felt it was superfluous to an already multifaceted work. But the audience loved it all, and it turns out that Madison is not the only city that seems to give everything a standing ovation.

The takeaway moment of the festival occurred during a discussion involving composer Dan Asia, the festival director and conductor George Hanson, and Jamie Bernstein. When asked how younger audiences can be lured into concert halls, all three of them immediately concurred that the answer is to program 20th-century music. They claim that any time 20th-century music is programmed, ticket sales increase. My experience at this festival was that large venues were consistently filled with audiences of all ages.

This is something for Madison to think about.


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Classical music: Piano and viola duo Vis-à-Vis gives a FREE concert this Saturday at noon as part of Grace Presents

January 11, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

For a while, the acclaimed FREE community outreach concert series Grace Presents had folded.

But now it is back.

Grace Presents’ new coordinator Yanzel Rivera, who is a graduate student at the UW-Madison Mead-Witter School of Music, has sent the following information to post:

“Grace Presents, which offers free monthly concerts on the Capitol Square, will feature the Vis-À-Vis duo (below) of violist Brandin Kreuder and pianist Craig Jordan.

“The one-hour concert, called “Clarke and Brahms” will take place this Saturday, Jan. 13, at noon at the Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, across from the Capitol Square.

The program features: Four Pieces by British composer Frank Bridge, (1879-1941); a Sonata by British composer Rebecca Clarke, (1886-1979, below top); “Un regard dans le vide” or ‘A Look Into the Void” (2017) by American composer Christian Messier (b. 1995, below bottom), who studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin;  and the Sonata in F Minor by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

ABOUT THE PERFORMERS

“Duo Vis-À-Vis aims to bring engaging and explorative chamber music performances to communities across the country and share their love for musical collaboration and expression.

“The duo is comprised of violinist/violist Brandin Kreuder, and pianist, Craig Jordan. Brandin is a native of Burlington, Wisconsin, and a 2016 graduate of Lawrence University and Conservatory (below) who holds a B.A. in Studio Art and a B.M. in Violin Performance.

“Brandin is currently in his second year of his Master of Music degree studying viola with virtuoso violist Jodi Levitz at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.

“Jordan, from Ames, Iowa, is a junior at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music pursuing his Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance under the teaching of Catherine Kautsky, with an emphasis on Collaborative Piano. He is currently studying this fall semester at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in the Netherlands with Marta Liébana Martínez.

“Since its debut in spring 2016, duo Vis-A-Vis has performed three recital tours in Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and Massachusetts. Their recent tour “Reminiscence” brought the duo to their widest variety of performance locations yet. One of these performances also served as the beginning of a new chamber music series hosted by the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth, Mass.

(You can hear Duo Vis-à-Vis (below) perform the Violin Sonata by Cesar Franck in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

ABOUT GRACE PRESENTS

Grace Presents features a diverse range of music, including everything from classical and folk to jazz and bluegrass. The performers include nationally recognized musicians and exceptional young talent from Madison and beyond.

The mission is to create a premier concert series that everyone in the Madison community can enjoy. Each month it welcomes a diverse audience to its concerts, including Madison residents, students, farmers’ market shoppers, tourists, and people who are homeless.

The organizers invite audiences to bring a lunch to enjoy inside the church during our concerts.

A celebrated historic landmark established in 1839, Grace Episcopal Church (below top and bottom) is the oldest church in Madison. Known for its grand Gothic architecture and distinctive red doors, the church features hand-carved woodwork, brilliant stained glass windows–including a Tiffany window–and a cathedral organ.

Grace Presents is supported in part by a grant from Dane Arts, the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation, the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

The series also relies on donations from sponsors and free-will offerings at each concert.


Classical music: Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe brings “Bach and Beer” to Next Door Brewing this Tuesday night as part of the acclaimed “Music in Familiar Spaces’ project — and you get to choose your own admission price

September 25, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Tuesday night, Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe, who just performed Vivaldi and Bach twice this past weekend with the Madison Bach Musicians, will present his program of three Bach solo cello suites paired with three brews.

The music starts at 7 p.m. on Madison’s east side at the Next Door Brewing (below), 2439 Atwood Avenue, on this Tuesday, Sept. 26.

Pincombe’s performance of this program was named by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as one of 2014’s top 10 classical music concerts and was recently featured in the Boston Globe and Seattle Times.

The concert runs from 7 to 9 p.m.

While sipping on their favorite brews, audience members will discover the connections between the art of brewing and the art of playing the music of Bach. (Pincombe explains the format in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Just as many brewers follow a recipe that was used hundreds of years ago, Steuart’s approach to playing Bach also looks back on old “recipes” and methods of playing.

The program of Solo Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (below) will be interlaced with short explanations of Steuart’s historical, interpretive approach along with comments from the brewery on the historical brewing method of each beer.

Each of the three suites will be paired with one of Next Door’s own brews. Concert-goers wanting to enjoy dinner at Next Door Brewery should arrive early, as there will be limited table seating during the concert.

The concert is part of Music in Familiar Spaces, a project that is bringing the highest level of classical music performance to homes, churches, cafés, bars or any place where community already exists.

One of the aims of the Music in Familiar Spaces project is to make classical music accessible to a wide and varied audience. This is accomplished not only by performing in familiar, comfortable and untraditional spaces, but by designing programs that invite the audience to experience the music in a new and engaging way.

The audience is also asked to name-their-own-ticket-price for the concert, paying what they can afford and what they deem the concert is worth (beer is sold separately).


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