The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear hears the impressive young pianist Joyce Yang and thinks Madison needs more piano recitals. Plus, a FREE concert of female vocal duets is at noon on Friday.

October 22, 2015
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held 12:15-1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature sopranos Susan Savage Day and Rebekah Demaree with pianist Sharon Jensen in duets by Gabriel Faure, Jacques Aubert, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi, UW-Madison alumnus Lee Hoiby and more.

By Jacob Stockinger

There he was last Thursday, sitting in the lower balcony in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear was in Piano Himmel, listening to a masterful performance.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by Joyce Yang (below), an up-and-coming, prize-winning Korea-born and America-trained pianist, still in her late 20s, who was making her Madison debut.

Joyce Yang

And the same thought haunted The Ear, himself an avid amateur pianist, that also came to him during a fine student piano recital this summer.

That thought was simply this: Madison needs to have many more solo piano recitals.

The piano is perhaps the one most commonly studied musical instrument and is a staple of music education, so the potential audience should be there. The repertoire is vast and wonderful. And the piano just hasn’t been receiving its due compared to the many new choral groups and chamber music ensembles that always seem to be proliferating in the area.

The Wise Teacher recalls years ago when almost a dozen solo piano recitals happened during a single season. This season there are only three -– and two have already taken place.

One was the recital of Mendelssohn, Franck and Chopin by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino (below top)  on Oct. 4 at Farley’s House of Pianos on its Salon Piano Series. (The Ear couldn’t go because he is was in Chicago that afternoon hearing a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini.) The second was by Joyce Yang. The third one will be the performance by UW-Madison virtuoso professor Christopher Taylor (below bottom) on Friday, Feb 26. (No program has yet been announced.)

Daniel del PIno square

Christopher Taylor new profile

Here is an afterthought: Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could start a piano series like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers on Sunday afternoons?

Let’s be clear: This is a matter more of pleasure and education than of justice.

Take Yang’s performance, which drew an unfortunately small house of only 300-400.

The first half was remarkable for both the clarity and color she possessed. Ethnic themes, folk songs and folk dances, especially Latin American and Spanish in nature, united the first half of her program.

She opened with two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the three “Estampes” or Prints by Claude Debussy and two pieces from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz and three virtuosic “cowboy” dances by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

In all those works, Yang proved a complete and mature keyboard artist. Her technique is rock solid, but it is her musicality that most impresses the listener. The Ear was particularly struck by Yang’s command of dynamics, her ability to play softly and still project, and to delineate and balance various voices.

The second half, all works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, proved less satisfying to The Ear, if not to the audience. It featured two transcriptions of vocal works or songs — “Dreams” and  “Vocalise”  — by the late American virtuoso pianist Earl Wild (below).

earl wild

Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge. In short, they are more piano than music. (You can listen to Earl Wild himself performing his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Then came  the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Rachmaninoff (below) in its revised 1931 edition. To be honest, this is a Big Piece that is full of sound and fury signifying not very much that The Ear can discern. (The Ear much prefers Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux.)

To be sure, the bombastic sonata requires impressive and powerful piano playing, which must explain the muscular work’s popularity among professional pianists and certain segments of the public. It is a Wower and wow us it does, although many of us would rather be seduced than wowed.

Rachmaninoff

The sonata surely is effective in live performance and brought an immediate standing ovation. That, in turn, was rewarded with another Earl Wild transcription this time of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Too bad the love once again seemed overpowered by difficult but flawlessly executed scales and runs.

But putting those shortcomings aside, the sound of an amazingly played piano recital was such a welcome experience.

The Ear hopes that many more of them are somehow in store.

 


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson will teach a class on the piano music of Claude Debussy in January and February. The deadline to register is Jan. 20.

January 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Our good friend Trevor Stephenson — who is usually an eloquent and humorous advocate of early music as a keyboardist who founded and directs the Madison Bach Musicians — will be offering a class at his home-studio about the piano music of the early 20th-century French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy (below).

Claude Debussy 1

The class will take on four Monday evenings: January 26, February 2, 16 and 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Those who know Trevor Stephenson (below top) know that he is an articulate and witty explainer, a fine teacher who can reach listeners on all levels. And he will use a 19th-century piano that is close to the kind the Debussy himself used (below bottom).

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

Stephenson ca 1850 English parlor grand

TOPICS include:

. Debussy’s life and musical influences

. Construction and tonal qualities of the 19th-century piano

. Modes, whole-tone scales, harmonic language, tonality

. Touch, pedaling, sonority

. Fingering approaches

. Programmatic titling, extra-musical influences, poetry and art

REPERTOIRE includes:

. Suite Bergamasque (with Clair de Lune), Preludes Book II and Children’s Corner Suite

. Two Arabesques, Reverie and Estampes (or “Prints,” heard at the bottom in a YouTube video of a live performance by the magical and great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in 1977 in Salzburg, Austria.)

The course is geared for those with a reading knowledge of music.

The classes will be given at Trevor Stephenson’s home studio (below). It is located at 5729 Forsythia Place, Madison WI 53705 on Madison’s west side.

Schubert house concert

Enrollment for the course is $150.

Please register by January 20, 2015 if you’d like to attend. Email is: trevor@trevorstephenson.com

 


Classical music: Native daughter and St. Olaf College pianist Kathryn Ananda-Owens returns to Madison for FREE recital of Mozart, Debussy and Justin Merritt on this Friday at noon at the First Unitarian Society.

February 5, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

When I first met Kathryn Ananda-Owens (below), I was a journalist reporting on education and she was a promising student at Memorial High School where she had just won a prestigious national science award and competition.

But she was also a very gifted young pianist, and music proved to be the profession she ended up pursuing. Indeed, she became the winner of the first annual Neale-Silva Young Artists Competition held in 1993 by Wisconsin Public Radio.

Kathryn Ananda-Owens, horizontal

Kathy studied at Oberlin College and then the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. For many years now, she has been a professor of piano at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, which is renowned for its music department and especially its choral music.

She has toured in Asia and Europe, has perform solo recitals chamber music and concertos with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the St. Olaf Orchestra. She has performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and has made several Compact Disc recordings.

Here is a link to a biographical sketch:

http://wp.stolaf.edu/music/people/kathryn-ananda-owens/

Kathy returns to Madison periodically, but not always to play in public. But she will perform this Friday at the FREE Noon Musicale held weekly in the Landmark Auditorium (below top and bottom) of the historic First Unitarian Society of Madison Meeting House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built at 900 University Bay Drive, from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

FUS exterior BIG COLOR USE

FUS1jake

Her program is a terrific combination of the old classics and new music.

Kathy will play Mozart’s dramatic Sonata in C Minor K. 457 and two of Debussy’s “Estampes” (Prints): “Pagodes” (Pagodas, played by David Cabassi during the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in a popular YouTube video at that bottom) and “Jardins Sous la Pluie”  (Gardens in the Rain.)

In addition she will perform a contemporary work that was written for her: “Album Leaves” by Justin Merritt (below), who has been in residence at St. Olaf College.

Justin Merritt

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Classical music: 150 years later, do we still not know the real Debussy?

April 5, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the past few years we have heard a lot about the anniversaries of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mahler. Next year is Wagner.

But this year is a Debussy Year, and we haven’t heard nearly as much, even in anticipation.

That is regrettable.

There is a strong case to be made for Debussy (below) as The Modernist of All Modernists, the man who broke the Germanic strangle hold once and for all on classical music and who pioneering new structure and new harmony.

So far, the best piece I’ve read is this one in the UK’s The Guardian that I have linked to. But I expect to hear much more from such well-known critics as Alex Ross, Anthony Tommasini and Anne Midgette, among others.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserviceblog/2012/mar/29/celebrating-debussys-real-legacy

There is so much Debussy I love, and good Debussy with a strong rhythmic and harmonic  backbone – not just the gauzy focus and slushy sentimentality that we wrongly associate with Impressionism. There is structure and Cartesian rationality and irony galore, as well as a distinctly Gallic subversive sensuality, in Debussy’s work.

I love the solo piano works — the two books of Preludes, the two books of Images, the Estampes, the Suite Bergamasque and the Ile Joyeuse. I love the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet.  I love the orchestral tone poems like Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunLa Mer and Nocturnes. And I especially adore his “Homage to Rameau” (at bottom, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo).

How would you describe the “real” Debussy”

What are your favorite Debussy works and your favorite Debussy interpreters?

The Ear wants to hear.


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