The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017
21 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Trevor Stephenson is offering a 4-part Chopin course and an all-Chopin concert on Feb. 25 (NOT Feb. 24 as first announced an mistakenly printed here). TODAY is the deadline for enrolling in the course

January 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Trevor Stephenson (below), who founded and co-directs the Madison Bach Musicians, may be best known in the Madison area for his work with early music and Baroque music.

But Stephenson, who is known for his outstanding pre-concert lectures as well as for his performances, is also deeply involved in period instruments and historically informed performance practices concerning Romantic music.

trevor-stephenson-with-1855-bosendorfer-grand

He writes to The Ear: “In February, I’m offering a four-part course on  piano music by Frederic Chopin (below). This will meet on Thursday evenings 6-7:30 p.m. at my home studio. Information is below. Email me to enroll.

“Also, I’ll play an all-Chopin house concert on SATURDAY, FEB. 25 AT 7 P.M. — NOT Sunday, Feb. 26, at 3 p.m. as first and mistakenly printed here — which will be here at the home studio as well. Refreshments will be served. Reservations are required (trevor@trevorstephenson.com). Admission is $40.”

Chopinphoto

CHOPIN COURSE

DATES: February 2, 9, 16, 23

TIME: Thursdays 67:30 p.m.

PLACE: 5729 Forstyhia Place, Madison WI 53705

COST: Enrollment is $120

Reading knowledge of music is suggested.

Class size is limited to 15, and enrollment closes TODAY, Friday, Jan. 27.

Contact trevor@trevorstephenson.com

TOPICS:

Feb. 2: Waltzes, Preludes

Feb. 9: Nocturnes, Mazurkas

Feb. 16: Etudes, Polonaises

Feb. 23: Ballades, Scherzos

Instruments to be used are: an 18th-century Fortepiano (Sheppard after Stein)
 c. 1840; a Cottage Upright Piano (attr. C. Smart ) c. 1850; and English Parlor Piano (Collard & Collard) 
c. 1855; and a Viennese Concert Grand Piano (Bösendorfer) 

Subject matter will include: Origins of Chopin’s compositional style; tonal qualities of his pianos, early 19th-century temperaments; fingering; pedaling; articulation; touch; tempo; and tempo rubato.


Classical music: This 90-year-old Belgian classical pianist learned how to play slow movements by Mozart and Beethoven by hearing Ray Charles – and shows why The Ear likes the arts reporting on PBS and NPR

January 15, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, I posted a disconcerting story from the Columbia Journalism Review about how most mainstream newspapers and traditional media are cutting way back on art coverage.

After all, runs the conventional wisdom, how can the arts compete with sports, politics and crime for attracting readers?

Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/14/classical-music-newspapers-and-media-continue-to-cutback-on-arts-writers-and-arts-critics-what-is-the-effect-on-the-arts/

Well, that kind of mistaken thinking is one reason why The Ear likes to watch PBS and national Public Radio or NPR. Especially on the PBS NewsHour, you find terrific stories about and interviews with major figures in the fine arts and the performing arts.

PBS treats the arts as vital and essential, not ornamental or secondary.

A wonderful example happened this week on the segment called “Brief But Spectacular” in which people offer their thoughts about their own lives and careers.

In this case, it was Jean Stark — a 90-year-old Belgian-born woman who was an accomplished concertizing classical pianist. She performed in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York City, and in halls around the world, and who talks about her life and career for PBS.

jean-stark

In the four-minute interview, she laments how classical music isn’t promoted these days and emphasizes how wonderful it was to be alive during the golden years of classical music with such great figures as composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

But, she confesses, for all her accomplishments she was unsatisfied with how she played slow movements of sonatas by Classical-era masters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

stark1-320x196

Until she came to the U.S. and went with a friend to a concert by Ray Charles.

Charles, she says, taught how to play slowly.

The Ear only wishes she had been more specific about the lessons she learned. Was it phrasing? Tempo? Accents? “Rubato,” or flexible timing?

It is a great, heart-warming story and typical of the kind of human interest arts coverage that you generally do not find on other television news channels, whether traditional networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX or cable TV channels such as CNN and MSNBC.

So The Ear offers it as both an enjoyable and informative arts story, and as an endorsement of the PBS NewsHour and especially reporter Jeffrey Brown, who does such a terrific job of reporting on the arts.

Here is the segment, which you can find on YouTube, along with other recordings by Stark:

An after-thought: To the best of his knowledge, The Ear thinks that the music you hear her playing is the “Aeolian Harp” Etude in A-Flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1, by Frederic Chopin and part of the suite “Pour le piano” (For the Piano) by Claude Debussy.

What do you think of arts coverage on the mainstream media and on PBS?

What do you think Jean Stark learned from Ray Charles?

If you saw this story, how did it affect you?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: National Public Radio (NPR) names its Top 10 classical recordings of 2016. The Ear compares it to other lists of the Best of the Year

December 27, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Got a Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gift card to spend?

Want to take advantage of post-holiday and year-end and New Year sales?

Here is the list of the Top 10 classic music recordings from National Public Radio (NPR), which critic Tom Huizenga (below top) wrote for the blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

huizenga_tom_2011

npr

It emphasizes unknown performers – like soprano Barbara Hannigan (below in a photo by Elmer Haas) and contemporary or new music. But it features piano music, orchestra music, chamber music and opera. And it has generous sound samples from the chosen recordings:

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/12/22/504694907/a-year-of-listening-desperately-10-classical-albums-that-saved-2016

soprano-barbara-hannigan-cr-elmer-de-haas

Over the past month, The Ear has featured several other Best of 2016 lists. So here they are for purposes of comparison and crosschecking.

For example, on several lists you will find conductor Daniel Barenboim‘s recording of the Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar and pianist Daniil Trifonov‘s two-CD recording of the complete piano etudes by Franz Liszt — and justifiably so. (You can hear the trailer for Trifonov’s Liszt etudes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is the post-Thanksgiving guide from The New York Times:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/classical-music-here-is-the-new-york-times-holiday-gift-guide-of-classical-music-for-2016/

Here is a list of nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2017-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/

And here is a link to a list by the critics of The New York Times:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/classical-music-here-are-the-best-classical-recordings-of-2016-as-chosen-by-critics-for-the-new-york-times/


Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with superb playing, hypnotizing space photos by NASA and close to three full houses

September 28, 2016
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Several years ago, artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) decided to use the season-opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to spotlight the symphony and its first-chair players as soloists.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

No big-name imported guest soloists were to be booked.

In addition, this year Maestro DeMain chose to open the season with a multimedia show that combined Jumbotron-like space images from NASA (below is Jupiter) with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” 

nasa-jupiter2

Such multimedia events increasingly seem to work as a way to build audiences and boost attendance by new people and young people. After all, a music director has to sell tickets and fill seats as well as wave a baton.

And it seems that, on both counts, DeMain’s strategy proved  spectacularly successful.

All sections of the orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) — strings, brass, winds, percussion — played with energy, precision and subtlety. The MSO proved a very tight ensemble. Each year, you can hear how the MSO improves and grows increasingly impressive after 23 years of DeMain’s direction.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The public seemed to agree. It came very close to filling the 2,200-seat Overture Hall for all three performances with more than 6,100 audience members, according to Peter Rodgers, the new marketing director for the MSO. Especially noteworthy, he said, was the number of children, students and young people who attended.

In fact, so many students showed up for student rush tickets on Friday night that the performance was delayed by around 10 minutes – because of long lines at the box office, NOT because of the new security measures at the Overture Center, which Rodgers said worked smoothly and quickly.

But not everything was ideal, at least not for The Ear.

On the first half, the playing largely outweighed the music.

True,  the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by a very young George Enescu (below) received a sizzling and infectious performance. With its catchy folk tunes, dance rhythms and Gypsy harmonies, the fun work proved an irresistible opener – much like a starting with an encore, which is rather like eating a rich and tasty dessert before tackling the more nutritious but less snazzy main course.

The music itself is captivating and frequently played – although this was its surprising premiere performance by the MSO. Little wonder the Enescu got a rousing standing ovation. Still, it is hardly great music.

george enescu

Then came the Chaconne for violin and orchestra by the American composer John Corigliano (below), who based the work on his Oscar-winning film score for “The Red Violin.”

John Corigliano

Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below) impressed The Ear and most others with her mastery of what appeared to be a very difficult score. The ovation was for her, not for the music.

Naha Greenholtz playing CR Greg Anderson

That music also has some fine moments. But overall it seems a dull and tedious work, an exercise in virtuosity with some of the same flaws you find in certain overblown piano etudes by Franz Liszt. Once again the playing trumped the music.

Then came The Big Event: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” coupled with clear, high-definition photos of the planets taken by NASA that were projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s and Venus’ clouds and Mars’ landscape (below) have never looked so impressive.

nasa-mars2

The orchestra again struck one with its exotic and “spacey” sound effects and with what must have been the difficulty of timing simultaneously the music and the images.

Yet ultimately Holst’s work became a sound track — music accompanying images rather than images accompanying the music. The Ear heard several listeners compare the admittedly impressive result to the movies “Fantasia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That says something.

At some moments the sound and images really matched and reinforced each other, especially in the dramatic opening section, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Holst’s score also succeeds nicely with “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and to a lesser degree with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.”

But overall “The Planets” reminds The Ear of colorful and dramatic  programmatic showpieces such as Ottorino Respighi‘s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome.” (Earth, curiously, is not included in “The Planets.” Makes you wonder: What would Earth bring?) Enjoyable music, to be sure, but not profound fare.

The Ear’s extensive library of CDs has none of the three works on the program. And it will probably remain that way.

While Holst’s work does have great moments, it grows long, repetitive and finally uninteresting as it ends not with a bang but with an underwhelming whimper – which was beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric singing of the MSO Women’s Chorus. There are just too many planets!

Listen to the YouTube video at the bottom, played by James Levine conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you will see: Mars rules!

nasa-mars

Add it all up and despite three standing ovations, in the end The Ear found the concert less than fully satisfying. The music, however likable and appealing, was not, for the most part,  great music. Moreover, it was mostly trumped first by the performances and then by the visuals.

So on a personal note, here is The Ear’s request to the MSO, which scored an undeniably brilliant success with this program: Keep the same all-orchestra and first-chair format for season-openers and use multimedia shows whenever appropriate. But please also include at least one really first-rate piece of music with more substance.

Is that asking for too much?

Is The Ear alone and unfair in his assessment? 

Other critics had their own takes and some strongly disagree with The Ear.

Here is a link to three other reviews:

By John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/beautiful-music-distracting-backdrop/

John-Barker

By Jessica Courtier for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/concert-review-mso-takes-audience-on-a-stunning-trip-to/article_6dd45c4d-c11b-5c77-ae54-35a3e731b1cb.html

And by Greg Hettmansberger (below), who writes for WISC-TV Channel 3 and his Classically Speaking blog for Madison Magazine, and on his own blog, What Greg Says:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/tag/john-corigliano/

greg hettmansberger mug

What did you think of the music, the performances and the visual show?

How well did they mix?

What did you like most and least?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Rediscovering old piano technique is altering how the music of the classical Old Masters sounds and how easily it is played

August 26, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Sure, for a long time musicology has traced how musical styles, forms and instrumentation have changed.

But now some researchers are using computers to investigate – and revive – an older keyboard technique from the 19th century that differs dramatically from the more modern technique generally in use. (Below is a photo by Alexander Refsum Jensenius.)

old piano technique CR Alexander Refsum Jensenius

It turns out not to be as outdated or useless as many assume.

It changes not only how the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin sounds but also the ease with which the performer can play it.

Here is a story from The New York Times that the Ear had stashed from about a year ago.

But he thinks it still seems timely – and fascinating.

And he hopes you do too.

Here is a link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/science/playing-mozart-piano-pieces-as-mozart-did.html

See what you think and leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra holds a FREE Farmers’ Market organ and piano concert this Saturday at 11 a.m.

July 7, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Art Fair on the Square, the annual summer fundraiser held by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, will displace the usual Dane County Farmers’ Market this Saturday morning around the Capitol Square downtown,

But the second of this summer’s three monthly FREE Farmers’ Market organ concerts, sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will take place this Saturday at 11a.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts.

The MSO invites families and friends for a relaxing 45-minute concert.

No tickets or reservations are needed and all ages are welcome.

The concert features music for piano and organ and is billed as: “The Über Steinway Meets the Colossal Klais II” with pianist Stephen Nielson (below left) and organist Samuel Hutchison (below right).

Stephen Nielson with Samuel Hutchison

The program includes: A Mighty Fortress is Our God, arr. Nielson and Young; Water Music Suite by George Frideric Handel; Hungarian Etude, Op. 39, by Edward MacDowell; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from Cantata No. 147 by Johann Sebastian Bach, arr. Myra Hess; O Polichinelle from Prole do Bebe by Heitor Villa-Lobos; Simple Gifts, arr. Charles Callahan; Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, by Johann Sebastian Bach (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom); When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, arr. Nielson & Young; Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, arr. Nielson and Young

Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund.

ABOUT THE ARTISTS:

American pianist Stephen Nielson made his orchestral debut as a pianist at age 11. During a 30-year collaboration with his late colleague, Ovid Young, Nielson performed more than 3,500 concerts world-wide as part of the distinguished piano duo Nielson & Young.

Since 2001, Samuel Hutchison has served as Curator and Principal Organist for Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Overture Concert Organ. As an organ soloist, Hutchison has presented many recitals both in the United States and in Europe

For more information about the event and the performers, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/farmer


Classical music: The big events at the UW-Madison this week are a piano recital on Friday by pianist Christopher Taylor of music by Bach, Brahms and Scriabin, and a FREE concert on Saturday by the Wisconsin Brass Quintet.

February 23, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two concerts at the UW-Madison this week are especially noteworthy:

FRIDAY

One of the indisputable stars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music faculty is pianist Christopher Taylor.

A winner of the bronze medal at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Taylor (below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) concertizes around the world to rave reviews, especially for his performances of modern or contemporary music.

Christopher Taylor Recital

Christopher Taylor Recital

This Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Taylor will perform a more tradition recital, but with a still noteworthy program made up of Baroque and Romantic music.

He is known as an interpreter of that music too since he has performed all 32 piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and the Franz Liszt transcriptions of the nine symphonies by Beethoven. (You can hear Taylor play the opening of the Famous Fifth Symphony at a festival in Russia in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Plus, Taylor is known for playing the “Goldberg” Variations, by Johann Sebastian Bach, on a special double keyboard piano that he has tinkered with and refined or improved upon, and which is now being built.

Christopher Taylor playing two-keyboard

In the upcoming recital Taylor will perform the French Suite No. 1 in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach; the rarely played Piano Sonata No. 1 by Johannes Brahms; and the even more rarely played compete Twelve Etudes, Op. 8, of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. (The etudes include the last one in D-sharp minor that was a favorite of pianist Vladimir Horowitz.)

Tickets are $15. Students get admitted free.

For more information, visit:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-piano-faculty-concert/

Christopher Taylor new profile

SATURDAY

Then on Saturday night, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the critically acclaimed Wisconsin Brass Quintet will perform a FREE concert of music by a variety of older composers and works as well as living composers and new music.

Members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (WBQ, below, in a photography by Michael R. Anderson) are, from left: Mark Hetzler, trombone; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Curry, tuba; John Aley, trumpet; Daniel Grabois, horn.

Wisconsin Brass Quintet

The program is: Sonatine by Eugène Bozza (1905-1981); Allegretto Pizzicato by Béla Bartók (1881-1945); Madrigaux Slaves by Ivan Jevtić (1947- ); Morning Music by David Sampson (1951-); Contrapunctus IX from “The Art of Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1695-1750); Elegy by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975, arranged by UW-Madison emeritus professor of tuba and euphonium and a nationally recognized composer John Stevens); and Music for Brass Instruments by Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) with special guest Tom Kelley, bass trombone.

A native of Appleton, WisconsinTom Kelley is a junior at UW-Madison studying trombone performance under Professor Mark Hetzler. At the UW_Madison, Kelley has performed with the Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Orchestra, Blue Note Ensemble, Low Brass Ensemble and a number of chamber groups.

He has also played outside the university in groups such as the Rock River Philharmonic and the Darren Sterud Jazz Orchestra. In the summer of 2015, Kelley attended the Sewanee Summer Music Festival where he won the Jacqueline Avent Concerto Competition.  He enjoys biking, cooking and binge-watching TV and movies.

For general background on the Wisconsin Brass Quintet:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/wisconsin-brass-quintet/


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman laments the neglect of piano concertos by Shostakovich and Poulenc, which he will perform this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

January 19, 2016
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This week, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will open the second half of its indoor season with a program that plays to its strong suits.

WCO lobby

The concert takes place this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, 211 State St,

The program feature works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

There will be the Overture to the opera “Cosi Fan Tutte” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Symphony No. 6 in C Major by Franz Schubert.

In between will come two rarely heard piano concertos that feature the return of soloist Adam Nieman (pronounced KNEE-man), who several years ago made a fine recording of early Mozart piano concertos with the WCO and its music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, who possesses a mastery of the Classical-era style and has a special fondness for French music.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

Neiman will perform the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor by French composer Francis Poulenc.

Tickets are $15-$80 with $10 student rush tickets on the day of the concert. For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information about the concert, including a lengthy biography of Adam Neiman, visit:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-ii-1/?utm_source=FY16+MW2+-+Adam+Neiman&utm_campaign=FY14+MW2+1.8.14&utm_medium=email

Adam Neiman recently did an email Q&A with The Ear:

adam neiman 3 2016

Can you briefly bring the public up to date with highlights about you and your career since you last performed here in 2008 with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded the early Mozart concertos?

I have been very actively performing over the last several years, since my last appearance with the WCO in 2008. My touring schedule has encompassed roughly 100 concerts a year, and I have had the pleasure of presenting some epic solo recital tours throughout the United States.

Specifically I have been engaged in three monumental projects: the Complete Liszt Transcendental Études in 2011-2012; Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Diabelli Variations in 2013-2014; and the complete Rachmaninoff Preludes and Études-tableaux in 2014-2015.

I have issued eight recordings since the Mozart piano concertos recording with the WCO, and three more solo records are on the way in 2017. In addition, I have founded a record label, Aeolian Classics, formed in 2014.

I have simultaneously kept an active teaching profile, and in 2015 I was awarded the position of Assistant Professor of Piano at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. As a full-time member of the faculty, I have since relocated to Chicago, so now I am a fellow Midwesterner!

Composition has always played a major part in my musical life, and since 2008 I have written a number of works for premieres, including my Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, which can be viewed on my YouTube channel at:

You have chosen an unusual program. What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich? What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto by Francis Poulenc? Why do you think both concertos are not programmed more often? Why do you perform them and what do you like about each one?

The Piano Concerto No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich (below) is one of my favorite works of all time, and when Andrew approached me about the possibility of performing it in conjunction with another concerto, I immediately suggested the Piano Concerto by Francis Poulenc.

dmitri shostakovich

Both works share certain core qualities, namely irony, humor, radiant beauty and spirited fun. These are works that do not disparage the concept of beauty, though they were both written during a post-war generation.

As such, rare moments of absolute Romanticism are intertwined with musical jokes, sardonic twists of phrase, and ridicule, rendering the messages of each piece complex and ironic. (You can hear Neiman perform the opening of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

At one point, during the last movement of the Poulenc, he spontaneously quotes George Gershwin’s “Swanee” in a moment of jazz ease, in between sparkly, jaunty sections of impish humor. In a sense, you could describe both pieces as tonal expressions of longing for a bygone era from the perspective of a bleak machine age.

From a compositional perspective, both works are solidly grounded in classical form, and both are ingeniously orchestrated, making use of each instrument’s range and dynamic qualities to draw out a maximum of character possibilities.

The piano writing is virtuosic, powerful, and expressive, and the combination will take the audience by storm – I think the WCO audiences will walk away from this performance humming passages of the works, and they will be delighted by the wit and charm that wins out in the end.

As to why the Poulenc is rarely performed, I can offer no other possible explanation than the innate closed-mindedness of many people in the music world.

Poulenc (below) is a composer who deserves a place at the very center of the main repertory. Yet due to the prejudices of the ignorant critics of his day who preferred to elevate the splendors of Germanic music to an Olympian height above the “avant-garde” of Russia and France, he, among others, garnered an undeservedly poor following.

Francis Poulenc

What would you like to say about performing in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Andrew Sewell, with whom you seem to share a deep musical affinity? Do you have plans to record something else with them?

Each performance I have played with the WCO stands out as a musical highlight for me. The orchestra is as fine as they come, and I am inspired by the love of music that seems to be the keystone of the ensemble.

Andrew Sewell (below) is not only a very fine conductor and exemplary musician, but I am lucky to count him as a close friend. We have a musical rapport that is powerful, with a long history, and it would be a privilege to keep performing and recording with him and the orchestra in the future.

There are no current plans in place to record together, but the experience of making the Mozart concertos CD in 2008 was so sweet, that I would be happy to do it again! Maybe a Shostakovich/Poulenc disc, hmmm?

andrewsewell

What else would you like to say?

I feel truly honored to be a part of the 2016 performance season of WCO, and I cannot wait to say hello to all my Madison friends!

For more information about me, please visit my website at www.adamneiman.com


Classical music: A major reassessment of Rachmaninoff is under way. Plus, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has died at 90 and the Unitarian Society’s FREE Friday Noon Musicales start again this week

January 7, 2016
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ALERT: The influential and controversial French avant-garde composer and conductor Pierre Boulez had died at 90. The Ear will feature more about him this weekend. Stay tuned.

ALERT: The FREE Friday Noon Musicales at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society of Madison‘s Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, start up again this Friday after a break for the holidays. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m. and features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jarmillo and pianist Rayna Slavova in music by Gustav Schreck, Eugene Bordeau, Gabriel Pierne and Antonio Torriani.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear can remember when Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) was treated as something of a joke by serious classical musicians – especially by the 12-toners and atonalists, who were more into R&D music (research and development) than into offering pleasure and emotional connection.

Rachmaninoff

The academic musicians, and some prominent music critics too, thought that the Russian composer’s music was too Romantic — meaning too accessible, too shallow and even cheap. They just didn’t consider Rachmaninoff a major 20th-century composer or artist.

But time is proving them wrong.

And how!!!

Surely The Rachmaninoff Deniers would like such popularity, durability and enthusiasm for their own music.

Haha.

Not likely.

Because Rachmaninoff had real genius linked to real heart.

So surely The Ear is not the only listener who finds so much of Rachmaninoff’s music -– especially his preludes, concertos, etudes and variations — irresistible and even moving.

Rachmaninoffold

Last fall saw Rachmaninoff’s appealing final work, the Symphonic Dances, performed by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra, under John DeMain, and the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra, under James Smith.

And pianist Joyce Yang played the momentous Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor at her recital in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This year’s Grammy nominations also include a whole CD of Rachmaninoff’s solo and concerto variations, including the wonderful tuneful and ingenious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Last year also saw “Preludes,” (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg for The New York Times) ) a successful play about the young Rachmaninoff — or Rachmaninov — climbing out of a deep depression with the help of therapist and hypnotist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who helped him compose again and become world-famous with his Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rac and Rachmaninoff Tina Fineberg NYT

Just this fall and winter, the New York Philharmonic with music director and conductor Alan Gilbert and pianist Daniil Trifonov (below), performed a retrospective featuring the complete cycle of Rachmaninoff piano concertos.

danill trifonov 1

trifonov rachmaninov

And here are some very perceptive and respectful remarks by conductor Marin Alsop (below) about Rachmaninoff’s life and work and about the less frequently played Symphony No. 3 in A minor that she will discuss and conduct.

Marin Alsop big

It comes from an interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition for NPR or National Public Radio. The Ear found her remarks about Rachmaninoff’s life in Beverly Hills and his effect on other exiled European musicians working in Hollywood to be especially perceptive.

Indeed, you may recall that Rachmaninoff was offered a lucrative chance to write a movie score and refused. So the moviemakers hired the British composer Richard Addinsell to write a piece that sounded like Rachmaninoff. The result was the Warsaw Concerto and the result does indeed sound a lot like Rachmaninoff.

Alsop, you may recall, was a student of Leonard Bernstein and is now the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which has audio samples of the Symphony No. 3, that also features a written essay by Marin Alsop about Rachmaninoff:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/12/28/461281186/rachmaninoff-an-american-without-assimilation

I like a Rachmaninoff tune. How about you?

So here is a YouTube performance, made in 1920, of Rachmaninoff himself playing my favorite Rachmaninoff piece — the wistful Prelude in G Major, Op 32, No. 5:

 


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