The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The prize-winning critic Alex Ross grieves to Brahms. What composer and piece would you choose to mourn the tragedies of the past week?

May 30, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This past week feels like a week that deserves mass grieving.

Of course, there was the life-changing, historic landmark of surpassing, in only a few months, more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

There were the spikes in new COVID-19 cases and deaths following the opening up from lockdowns and the mass gatherings over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, such as the party at the Lake of the Ozarks (below) in Missouri.

Then there was the tragic, racist death — an alleged murder — of George Floyd by the police and the ensuing rioting, violence and additional death in Minneapolis as well as the seven shootings among protesters in Louisville.

And depending of your political point of view, there were the incidents of White House threats against social media, especially Twitter, for simply telling the truth or at least directing viewers to it.

So what can one say about these sad events and sad times with music?

Well, not too long ago Alex Ross (below), the prize-winning and internationally respected music critic for The New Yorker magazine, wrote an engaging and moving essay about why he finds Brahms to be the perfect composer for grieving and mourning.

He mentions other composers as possibilities, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

But Ross still finds Brahms more suited for several reasons. He even cites a favorite performance of a Brahms short, late Intermezzo by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu. (You can hear that performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/grieving-with-brahms

What composers – and what pieces or performances – do you find best for grieving? For marking loss?

Read the essay, listen to the music.

Then let us know in the comment section what music – perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings? – that you would want to listen to during sad occasions.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is May 5  — Cinco de Mayo. And here is a work by Mexican composer Gustavo Campa to celebrate the holiday

May 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is May 5 – the colorful Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo.

If you don’t know the origins of the holiday and what events sparked it, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo

Usually the music that celebrates the holiday is popular music or folk music – including mariachi bands and guitar music.

But there is also a good amount of classical music by Mexican composers that can mark the occasion.

In past years, this blog has featured Mexican performing artists such as the terrific pianist Jorge Federico Osorio and the most famous Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

But there are many others.

Perhaps programming and performing more Mexican and Latin American composers and music would help attract Latinx listeners to concert halls once they reopen.

In any case, here is a link to a sampler or compilation of Mexican music found on Spotify:

https://www.classicalmusicindy.org/cinco-de-mayo-playlist/

And here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a lovely “Melody” for violin and orchestra, with a photo essay, by the Mexican composer Gustavo Campa (below) along with a link to his biography:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavo_Campa

Happy Cinco de Mayo!


Classical music: Acclaimed local soprano Sarah Brailey explains why performing artists and presenters need help during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Sarah Brailey (below) is worried.

And with good reason.

Chances are good that you have seen the local soprano or heard her sing.

She is the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition, which she herself won in 2015. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Brailey sing the aria “Will the Sun Forget to Streak” from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon,”  with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra under conductor Julian Wachner, in the St. Paul Chapel in New York City.)

Brailey is a co-founder of and participant in the monthly free Just Bach concerts here. In addition, while pursuing graduate studies at the UW-Madison, she is a concert artist with a budding international career. For more about her, including a rave review from The New York Times and sample videos, go to: https://sarahbrailey.com

But right now the Wisconsin native is especially concerned about the lasting impact that the Coronavirus pandemic will have on her own career as well as on the careers of others like her and on the well-being of arts presenters.

Brailey (below, in photo by Miranda Loud) sent The Ear the following essay:

By Sarah Brailey

This is a scary time for everyone, but particularly for anyone who works as an independent contractor.

I am a freelance classical soprano based in Madison. I maintain a very active performing career, traveling all over the globe, and I am also a doctoral student at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, presenting organizations on the east and west coasts started canceling concerts to comply with social distancing recommendations.

I initially thought I was lucky to be living in the middle of the country where our lesser population density might save us. Plus, I am a Teaching Assistant at the UW right now, so I will still be getting my stipend — although teaching virtual voice lessons will be its own special challenge!

But many of my colleagues are not so lucky and are facing bankruptcy. If the government doesn’t include independent contractors in its relief packages, a lot of people are going to be insolvent.

And I myself am not immune. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, all my concerts in the next two months soon disappeared one by one.

While not being able to perform is emotionally devastating, these cancellations are also financially devastating.

There exists a clause in every standard performance contract called “force majeure” (superior force), which is idiomatically referred to as, “an act of God.” This clause excuses a party from not honoring its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.

This can come in handy for a presenter if there is, say, a blizzard that necessitates the cancellation of a concert. (This happened to me a few seasons ago with the Boston Symphony.) If the presenter will not make any money on ticket sales, they are not then further injured by having to pay the musicians for the canceled concert. (Below, Brailey sings Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with the Colorado Symphony.)

The ramifications of this pandemic are unprecedented. Every freelance musician I know is suddenly out of work. The current conventions put all of the upfront financial burden on the artists. We are paid in one lump sum at the end of a project. We do not get a fee for the countless hours of preparation.

We often book travel and lodging on our own dime, and are not reimbursed until the end of the gig. We pay for our own health insurance, and we cannot file for unemployment because our work is paid via IRS Form 1099 and not W2s. The abrupt work stoppage caused by this pandemic means insolvency – or even bankruptcy — for many artists. (Below, Brailey sings Handel’s “Messiah” at the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City.)

Many institutions — and, unfortunately, many of the bigger players like The Metropolitan Opera — are invoking force majeure without much regard for how their artists are struggling.

My colleague, tenor Zach Finkelstein, is covering this in great detail on his blog The Middle Class Artist, as is Alex Ross, the prize-winning music critic for The New Yorker. Read his piece on force majeure here.

However, there are also thankfully some good stories to tell. The Bach Society of Minnesota reimbursed all my travel expenses and is paying 75 percent of my fee, as is the Lyra Baroque Orchestra.

I am helping Zach keep track of the organizations that are helping their artists in this time of need. (Read about them here. Madison Opera is on the list.)

The arts are not just cultural enrichment; they are an essential part of our economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employed over 5 million workers. We cannot afford to let this industry disappear. I fear that many individual artists and arts organizations will not recover from this. (Below, Brailey sings Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bucknell Bach Festival.)

While we wait out this storm, I implore you to donate to a Madison arts organization. Here is a short list of recommendations along with some national relief funds for artists.

Local Arts Organizations

Madison Bach Musicians

Handel Aria Competition

Madison Early Music Festival

Madison Opera

Madison Youth Choirs

List of National Relief Funds


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Classical music: This Sunday afternoon at Farley’s, pianist Shai Wosner performs sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert, Scarlatti and Rzewski. On Saturday afternoon, he gives a FREE public master class

February 18, 2020
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ALERT and CORRECTION: Earlier this week, The Ear mistakenly said the concert by UW Concert Band is Wednesday night. He apologizes for the error.

It is TONIGHT at 7:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall of the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. In addition, the School of Music website has updated information about the program to be played under director and conductor Corey Pompey. Go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-band-3/

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, one of the today’s most interesting and creative concert pianists will return to Madison to make his solo recital debut.

His name is Shai Wosner (below, in a  photo by Marco Borggreve) and he is an Israeli-American who is acclaimed for his technique, his tone and his subtle interpretations.

But what also makes Wosner especially noteworthy and one of the most interesting musical artists performing today is his eclectic, thoughtful and inventive approach to programming.

For more information about Wosner, go to his home website: http://www.shaiwosner.com

Wosner returns to Madison to perform his first solo recital here at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, on the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos, at 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Born in Israel and now teaching in Boston while touring, Wosner will play sonatas by Beethoven, Scarlatti, Rzewski and Schubert.

He has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe, and records for Onyx Classics. “His feel for keyboard color and voicing is wonderful,” said The Washington Post.

The Madison program is: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D Major (“Pastoral”), Op. 28; Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 141, Allegro, with Rzewskis’ Nanosonata No. 36 (“To A Young Man”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 9, Allegro, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 38 (“To A Great Guy”); Scarlatti’s Sonata in C minor, K. 23, with Rzewski’s Nanosonata No. 12; and Schubert’s last Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets are also for sale at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

For more information about Wosner’s FREE public master class at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, including the names of local students and their teachers plus the titles of works by Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to be played, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Wosner (below) recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

In concerts and recordings, you like to mix and intersperse or alternate composers: Brahms and Schoenberg; Haydn and Ligeti; Schubert and Missy Mazzoli; and Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, Ives and Gershwin. Why do you pair sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and the American composer Frederic Rzewski (1938-) in this program?

I like to pair together composers from very different periods in ways that, hopefully, bring out certain things they have in common in spite of the differences.

Perhaps it is a way of looking for the underlying principles that make music work, for the ideas that go beyond styles and time periods and that stimulate composers across centuries.

In the case of Scarlatti (below top) and Rzewski (below bottom), it is the extreme conciseness of their sonatas and also their almost impulsive kind of writing with ideas and twists and turns kept unpredictably spontaneous, almost in the style of stream-of-consciousness.

Their sonatas are closer to the literal meaning of the word – “a piece that is played” as opposed to sung (which was more common in Scarlatti’s time perhaps). They are also very much about treatment of the keyboard and gestural writing rather than the more essay-type sonatas that were the dominant idiom for Beethoven and Schubert.

Why did you pick these particular sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert to bookend the program?

The sonata by Beethoven (below top) is quite unusual for him, without many contrasts and very lyrical, which perhaps is a certain parallel with the Schubert sonata. (You can hear Wosner playing an excerpt from another Beethoven sonata in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But they are also very different. Beethoven’s sonata looks around it and is about idyllic nature — the title “Pastoral” isn’t by Beethoven but it is written in that kind of style — and the sonata by Schubert (below bottom) is more introspective, perhaps about human nature.

What would you like the public to know about specific works and composers on your Madison program?

I think it’s always stimulating to challenge preconceptions we have about composers.

Beethoven is often associated with a certain “heroic” style and bold, dramatic gestures while this piece is quite understated in many ways.

Schubert’s last sonata is often seen as a farewell to the world. But at the same time Schubert himself may not have been aware of his impending death as much as we think – he made some plans right near the end that may suggest otherwise.

I prefer to let everyone find in this music what they will, of course. But I think these works reveal other aspects of these composers that we don’t always think of. Is Schubert’s piece really about his own tragedy? It is probably much broader than that.

Now that your acclaimed Schubert project is completed, what are your current or upcoming projects?

I am currently working with five other composers on a project that is a collection of five short pieces written as “variations” for which the theme is a quote from a 1938 speech by FDR: “remember, remember always, that all of us… are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Each composer chose a figure of an immigrant — some famous, some not — to write about. The composers are Vijay Iyer, Derek Bermel (below top), Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu and John Harbison (below bottom).

These “variations” will be paired with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations.

What else would you like to say about your career and, after several concerto appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about your solo recital debut in Madison?

Madison has a lovely audience that I was fortunate to meet in the past, and I certainly look forward to being back there!

 


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Classical music: The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO) will give two FREE afternoon performances this Saturday and Sunday with the world premiere of a socially relevant piece by local composer Lawren Brianna Ware

August 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (MAYCO, below) will present its ninth season this weekend, performing two free afternoon concerts.

Co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of conductor Mikko Rankin Utevsky (below left) and concertmaster Thalia Coombs (below back), the orchestra will perform music of Haydn, Wagner and Grieg, plus a commissioned work from local composer Lawren Brianna Ware.

Performances are Saturday, Aug. 3, at noon on the “Grace Presents” concert series at Grace Episcopal Church, located downtown at 116 West Washington Avenue on the Capitol Square; and on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 12:30 p.m. in the Mead Witter Lobby of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art, as part of “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.”

(Please note that Sunday’s concert is NOT in the Brittingham Gallery III due to space constraints.) Sunday’s performance will be live-streamed on the Chazen website. Here is a link to the portal for streaming: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen7/

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Utevsky and Coombs offer the following comments about the program:

We’re excited to be working with Lawren Brianna Ware (below) on a new work she composed for us, Un sueño aplazado (A Dream Deferred – a quote from the African-American poet Langston Hughes), which chronicles the emotional trajectory of a migrant’s journey from Central America to the United States.

Our two high school Conducting Apprentices, Luke Whittingham (below top) and Quinn Wilson (below bottom) will each conduct one performance of a movement from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Whittingham conducts on Saturday and Wilson does so on Sunday.

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is a luxurious tone poem for small orchestra that he composed as a love letter to his wife Cosima, first performed on the staircase of their villa in Switzerland on her birthday. Often chamber orchestras don’t get the chance to dig into the great German Romantic repertoire, but this gem is a notable — and unforgettably beautiful — exception. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We conclude our program with Franz Joseph Haydn’s final symphony, No. 104. Nicknamed the “London,” it is one of 12 symphonies he wrote for performances there late in his career, and it remains one of his finest essays in symphonic form.

MAYCO is made possible by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.

For more information about the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, go to www.mayco.org or call (608) 514-5537.


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Classical music: Music from Schubert’s last year of life is the focus of this year’s UW-Madison’s Schubertiade this Sunday afternoon when a world-famous Schubert scholar will share her insights

January 25, 2019
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NEWS UPDATE: The UW-Madison is offering FREE ADMISSION to Sunday afternoon’s Schubertiade, discussed below, to furloughed federal workers, who just have to show their federal identification to an usher.

By Jacob Stockinger

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s sixth annual Schubertiade – a re-creation of the historical and informal celebration of his music that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) used to hold with friends – will take place this Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

The focus this year is the music composed in the last year of Schubert’s life, before his death at 31.

A schedule of events and information about tickets are below.

This Schubertiade will feature a world-famous Schubert scholar. Susan Youens, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame, has one of the most impressive musicology resumes in the world, and will share her insights about the late style of Franz Schubert (below) in her pre-concert lecture.

Youens has won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She has published eight books, hundreds of articles, essays and chapters, and lectured all over the world.

“Dr. Youens (below) will explore the rich relationship of Schubert’s music to the poems he chose to set and the emergence of new directions in Schubert’s style,” says co-organizer William Lutes. “The influence of Beethoven had loomed large throughout Schubert’s music, and in the year following Beethoven’s death, the 31-year-old composer wrote works of homage to this great master, as he saw his own music becoming more widely recognized, published and performed.”

Highlights of the Schubertiade will be a complete performance of Schubert’s 14 final songs, published after his death as Schwanengesang, or “Swan Songs” — among the composer’s richest and most forward-looking works. (You can hear the famous “Serenade” from “Swan Songs” sung by Angela Gheorghiu in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Also on the program are the humorous and risqué Refrain-Lieder; the slow movement of the great Piano Trio in E-flat major; the enchanting Rondo in A major for piano four-hands; and the beautiful song Auf den Strom for voice, horn and piano, composed for a concert commemorating the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, and filled with subtly haunting references to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

In addition to pianists and singers Martha Fischer and William Lutes (below), guest performers will include voice faculty members Mimmi Fulmer, Julia Rottmayer and Paul Rowe, voice students Sarah Brailey, Wesley Dunnagan, and Benjamin Hopkins, graduate hornist Joanna Schulz, and guest singer Cheryl Bensman-Rowe.

Also participating is the Perlman Trio (Mercedes Cullen, violin; Micah Cheng, cello; and Kangwoo Jin, piano).

The School of Music also thanks donors Ann Boyer and Kato Perlman for their longtime support of the Schubertiades, the Perlman Trio and other musicians and events.

2019 SCHUBERTIADE SCHEDULE

Pre-concert lecture: 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Morphy Hall. (Free.)

Concert: 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27, Mills Hall. (Ticketed.)

Post-concert reception, included with ticket purchase: Sunday, Jan. 27, at the nearby University Club, 5:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $17 for adults, $7 for all age students/children; free to music majors, faculty and staff. To avoid long lines, we suggest arriving 30 minutes early or buying tickets ahead of time, either in person or online. Please see the link below.

Purchase options (online, by telephone and in person) here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

To buy tickets directly online, click here.


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Classical music education: The all-student Madison Youth Symphony Orchestra scores another big success with music by Mozart, Copland and Grieg

August 6, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra (below, in a photo by Steve Rankin), founded and led by Mikko Rankin Utevsky is celebrating its fourth season of summer training sessions and public concerts.

I had to miss the first one of this summer, back in June, but I caught up with their second one, on last Saturday night, given at the First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

The church is now pursuing an active program of concerts, and this was the first one I have attended there. The hall (below) is a beautiful and spacious one, with fine acoustics. The fifty-odd people who attended were all but dwarfed by its amplitude.

The first half of the program was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, often known by the name “Jeunehomme” for the student who inspired it.  It is a boldly innovative work, even as it is the composer’s first truly mature essay in this form.

The soloist was Trevor Stephenson (below top and left in bottom photo), artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, playing his own fortepiano.

That instrument lacks the big and forceful sound of the modern grand piano, and Stephenson rightly shunned heroics for greater delicacy. Even with an orchestra of only 16 players, the instrument defined a balance that was fascinatingly different from what we usually hear. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Mozart concerto played on a fortepiano by Malcolm Bilson, who was Trevor Stephenson’s teacher.)

After the intermission, Utevsky identified a policy now established by the organization, one that allows certain players in the orchestra to become podium “interns”, for training and for one performance opportunity.

This time cellist Elizabeth Strauss (below) was given a chance to conduct the familiar string arrangement that Edvard Grieg made of his song Våren (usually translated as “The Last Spring”).

Strauss seemed very confident. I did find her tempo a little faster than seems good to me, and a string group of only a dozen players could hardly achieve the polish and richness that most performances bring off. Still, the point is the wonderful experience given to such a trainee-conductor in these circumstances.

The concert concluded as Utevsky conducted the recast orchestra (below) in the suite for 13 instruments that Aaron Copland derived from his ballet Appalachian Spring.

This is a beautiful piece of Americana in music, and both conductor and players gave it their full devotion. The result was a handsomely well-balanced and nicely blended performance that obviously moved the audience greatly.

The MAYCO organization has made a real place for itself in Madison’s summer music, giving valuable experience to both the conductor and his student players, as they grow into mature orchestral musicians.

Long may it succeed!


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Classical music: The Ear listens with eyes open and finds interesting photos at concerts

August 14, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It was the famous 20th-century composer and pioneering modernist Igor Stravinsky (below) who advised us to listen to music with our eyes open.

For one, it fosters our appreciation of the sheer physicality of making music. Musicians are, as the pianist Vladimir Horowitz once observed, athletes of the small muscles.

If you listen with your eyes open you can see a lot of things.

You can see how musicians give each other cues.

You can see the expression on their faces, the joy and pleasure that making music gives them.

You can observe how different members of the audience react differently to different music.

You can appreciate the many kinds of instruments with the eye-catching shapes, sizes and colors.

And you can see patterns that make for good photographs – if taking photos is allowed.

Of course even if it is, there are rules to follow so that the musicians and other audience members are not disturbed: no flash and no shutter sound are the main ones besides the rule of intellectual property and the forbidding of taking photographs – kind of a difficult one to enforce these days, what with all the smart phones out there.

But some musicians and groups are very friendly and open to photographing, especially if the photos are strictly personal and not for commercial use to earn a profit.

At the last regular concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber players a little over two weeks ago, The Ear found two that showed patterns for good composition.

It’s just fun. But productive fun that can capture the fascination with music and musicians, especially if you sit close to the performers.

Here they are.

First is “Three Clarinets,” a portrait of guest artist Michael Maccaferri, from the Grammy-winning chamber music group eighth blackbird, with the three clarinets he used in the Argentinian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” The black verticality of the clarinets is heightened by the same quality of the music stands.

The second is “Two Cellos and One Violin,” taken during the bows after the string sextet version of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante.” The shapes and shades of brown wood draw the eye.

Tell The Ear of you like this kind of photo essay and want to see more of them on the blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Ancora String Quartet turns in outstanding performances of Beethoven and Shostakovich, and revives a neglected quartet by Danish composer Niels Gade

July 31, 2017
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music radio show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos for this review.

By John W. Barker

Whether as a finale to the passing season or as a prelude to the upcoming one, the Ancora String Quartet (below) favored its admirers with a fine summer concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Regent Street last Saturday night.

The program offered three contrasting works.

It started off boldly with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, a slashing three-movement work of nervous and disturbing energy.

So many of the quartets by Shostakovich (below) are autobiographical, or at least confessional, in character, and this one is a clear expression of both personal anxieties and political apprehensions. The Ancoras tore into it with gusto.

Niels W. Gade (below) is hardly a composer of instant recognizability, but he was at the center of Leipzig’s post-Mendelssohn world and then, when he returned to his native Denmark, he became the dominant figure in its musical life until his death in 1890. This is the bicentennial year of his birth.

Gade has left us some fine orchestral music that deserves frequent hearings. And his true legacy was his advancement — if with reservations — of his prize student, Carl Nielsen.

Gade’s late String Quartet in D, Op. 63, one of his three works in the form, is steeped in the stylistic qualities of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, without quite extending them. Still, it is altogether a listenable work, and we can thank the Ancora players for sharing with us.

The big event, however, was the concluding piece, Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, part of his set of six that marked his brilliant debut as a composer in this form.

Meant to show his extension of the work of Haydn and Mozart in this idiom, this quartet was worked on laboriously by Beethoven, to offer a kaleidoscopic array of moods and structures.

The first movement in particular is a proclamation of his lifelong skill in creating bold entities out of the most minimal motivic material, while the third and fourth movements are hectic displays of energy and imagination.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the slow movement, supposedly reflecting Shakespearian influences. Wonderfully vigorous in all movements, the Ancoras were particularly eloquent in that dark and tragic essay that looks to the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” (You can hear the slow second movement, played by the Takacs Quartet, which will perform next season at the Wisconsin Union Theater, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It has become the custom with this group for one member to give a brief spoken introduction to each composition, and that practice worked particularly well for this program, giving the audience a comfortable sense of welcome and valuably pointing up things to listen for. (Below is violist Marika Fischer Hoyt explaining and deconstructing the Beethoven quartet.)

If you missed the concert, the Ancora String Quartet will repeat the program this coming Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. for the “Afternoon Live at the Chazen” program. You can attend the concert in Brittingham Gallery 3 of the Chazen Museum of Art for FREE or live-stream it from the Chazen website.

Here is a link to the website with more information and a portal for streaming:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/visit/programs/#section6


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