The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Prize-winning violinist Ilya Kaler returns to perform Paganini with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this Friday night

April 18, 2018
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features bassoonist Juliana Mesa-Jaramillo, clarinetist Jose Garcia-Taborda and pianist Satoko Hayami in music by Mikhail Glinka, Max Bruch and Carlos Guastavino. The concert takes place from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

If you were in the audience two years ago when violinist Ilya Kaler (below) made his Madison debut with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, it is unlikely that you have forgotten it.

Kaler proved himself a complete virtuoso when he performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major. The audience went wild and so did the critics, including The Ear.

Backed up with a first-rate accompaniment by music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO, Kaler showed a perfect mix of dramatic virtuosity, songful lyricism, lush tone and sonic clarity that you rarely hear.

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center Kaler returns to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), again under the baton of music director Andrew Sewell.

The vehicle this time is the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 7, by perhaps the most famous violin virtuoso of all time, Niccolo Paganini (below, playing for astonished listeners).

The concerto is famous for the “La Campanella” (The Bell) theme of the last movement that inspired the show-off etude of the same name by the great pianist Franz Liszt, who sought to emulate and transfer Paganini’s fiendish violin virtuosity on the piano. (You can hear that last movement in YouTube video at the bottom.)

Also on the program are: The Mozart-like and operatic String Sonata No. 2 by a 12-year-old Goiachino Rossini; and the Symphony No. 81 in G Major by Franz Joseph Haydn, a composer who is one of the interpretative strengths of Sewell (below).

Tickets are $15-$80. For ticket information and purchases, got to: http://www.overture.org/events/ilya-kaler

Born in Russia and trained at the famed Moscow Conservatory, Kaler now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. He also won major gold medals in the 1980s at three major international competitions: the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; the Paganini Competition in Genoa; and the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki.

He also records frequently for Naxos Records. To find out more about the impressive Kaler, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilya_Kaler

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Classical music: Meet Isabelle Demers, who performs an unusual organ recital tonight at 7:30 in Overture Hall

April 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) welcomes the return of organist Isabelle Demers (below) for a recital tonight, Tuesday, Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Professor of organ and head of the organ program at Baylor University, Isabelle Demers enjoys a very active recital career with performances worldwide from London to Los Angeles and Melbourne to Madison.

Her program entitled The Three B’s includes music by Edward Bairstow, Joseph Bonnet, and Hector Berlioz with Demers’ own transcription of Berlioz’s blistering “Symphonie Fantastique.” She is renowned for her dazzling performances, dynamic style, and universal audience appeal.

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20. Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/demers, where you can also see Demers’ complete program, or by calling (608) 258-4141, or by going to the Overture Box Office.

Student Rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 tickets.

This performance is sponsored by the Skofronick Family Charitable Trust. Support for all Overture Concert Organ programs is provided by the Diane Endres Ballweg Fund. With a gift from Pleasant T. Rowland, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Overture Concert Organ (below), which is the backdrop of all MSO concerts.

For more Overture Concert Organ information, visit madisonsymphony.org/organ.

Here is a Q&A that the MSO did with Demers, who has more than two dozen videos on YouTube, including her own transcriptions of sections from “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that is at the bottom:

MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.

ID: I grew up in Quebec, Canada, and started piano when I was 6. Most of my family works in sciences, but my mother wanted music to be an important part of my education. I entered pre-college at the Montreal Conservatory when I was 11 and really loved it, so it was not a very hard decision to choose music as a career later on.

My mother also suggested that I learn organ when I turned 16; she thought it would be a good instrument for me, while I saw it as a way to pay for my piano lessons. I guess the moral of the story is that one should always listen to their mother.

MSO: What differentiates you from other organists?

ID: I’m much shorter and I have a lovely French-Canadian accent. Seriously, I think I have a different feel for registration because I didn’t grow up with organ music. I listened to lots of orchestral and operatic works as a teenager, and I think that it influences the way I register most works, especially transcriptions.

I also have a more extensive background as a pianist than most other organists, so virtuosic works might come slightly more easily to me. (By the time I stopped playing piano, I had learned almost all the Chopin etudes, for example.)

MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?

ID: Definitely the wide range of sounds and dynamics at our disposal! Being able to create my own sound world on every instrument I play is a very exciting part of my job. I don’t always play the same works, but even if I did, they often sound completely different when you try them on new instruments. I also like the physical aspect of playing organ; it’s good to get all your limbs moving together, especially when they are all falling on the right keys at the right time!

MSO: What would you say to someone at their first organ concert?

ID: Let yourself be moved by the instrument. Instead of trying to understand every note, listen for the bigger gestures, for the colors, for the larger picture. The organ has the potential to be very exciting and moving, but first one must forget that it is essentially a big machine.

If you don’t like the colors or the music, then hopefully it is possible to see the organist. I always find it fascinating to watch people play, and see how they can manage all the knobs and buttons on the console.

MSO: Other than playing the organ, what are some interests of yours?

ID: I love traveling, reading, spending time outside when it’s cold (which unfortunately doesn’t happen much in Texas) and cooking. I like to make ice cream, which is obviously very popular with the students as well. On my last visit to Madison I was able to try sour cream ice cream, which was delicious! I’ve tried to reproduce the recipe at home, but I think I’ll need some more practice.


Classical music: Here are the classical music winners of the 2018 Grammy Awards.

January 30, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This posting is both a news story and a gift guide of sorts about recordings you might like to give or get.

It features the classical music nominations for and winners of the Grammy Awards, which were just announced this past Sunday night.

Read them and in the COMMENT section what you think of the recordings that you know and which ones you think deserved to win. (The Ear got about half right.)

You can also encouraged to comment on the Grammys in general.

NOTE: THE WINNERS HAVE AN ASTERISK AND A PHOTO, AND ARE BOLDFACED

HISTORICAL ALBUMS:

  • “The Goldberg Variations — the Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions June 1955” — Robert Russ, compilation producer; Matthias Erb, Martin Kistner & Andreas K. Meyer, mastering engineers (Glenn Gould)
  • *”Leonard Bernstein — the Composer” (below) — Robert Russ, compilation producer; Martin Kistner & Andreas K. Meyer, mastering engineers (Leonard Bernstein)

ENGINEERED ALBUM, CLASSICAL

  • “Danielpour: Songs of Solitude & War Songs” — Gary Call, engineer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • “Kleiberg: Mass for Modern Man” — Morten Lindberg, engineer (Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Trondheim Vokalensemble & Trondheim Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Schoenberg, Adam: American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies” — Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
  • *”Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio” (below) — Mark Donahue, engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Tyberg: Masses” — John Newton, engineer; Jesse Brayman, mastering engineer (Brian A. Schmidt, Christopher Jacobson & South Dakota Chorale)

PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, CLASSICAL

  • Blanton Alspaugh
  • Manfred Eicher
  • *David Frost (below)
  • Morten Lindberg
  • Judith Sherman

ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE

  • “Concertos for Orchestra” — Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches” — Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Debussy: Images; Jeux & La Plus Que Lente” — Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
  • “Mahler: Symphony No. 5” — Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra)
  • *”Shostakovich (below): Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio” — Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

OPERA RECORDING

  • “Berg: Lulu” — Lothar Koenigs, conductor; Daniel Brenna, Marlis Petersen & Johan Reuter; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)
  • *”Berg: Wozzeck” (below) — Hans Graf, conductor; Anne Schwanewilms & Roman Trekel; Hans Graf, producer (Houston Symphony; Chorus of Students and Alumni, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University & Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus)
  • “Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de Perles” — Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Diana Damrau, Mariusz Kwiecień, Matthew Polenzani & Nicolas Testé; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
  • “Handel: Ottone” — George Petrou, conductor; Max Emanuel Cencic & Lauren Snouffer; Jacob Händel, producer (Il Pomo D’Oro)
  • “Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel” — Valery Gergiev, conductor; Vladimir Feliauer, Aida Garifullina & Kira Loginova; Ilya Petrov, producer (Mariinsky Orchestra; Mariinsky Chorus)

CHORAL PERFORMANCE

  • *”Bryars: The Fifth Century” — Donald Nally, conductor (PRISM Quartet; The Crossing)
  • “Handel: Messiah” — Andrew Davis, conductor; Noel Edison, chorus master (Elizabeth DeShong, John Relyea, Andrew Staples & Erin Wall; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir)
  • “Mansurian: Requiem” — Alexander Liebreich, conductor; Florian Helgath, chorus master (Anja Petersen & Andrew Redmond; Münchener Kammerorchester; RIAS Kammerchor)
  • “Music of the Spheres” — Nigel Short, conductor (Tenebrae)
  • “Tyberg: Masses” — Brian A. Schmidt, conductor (Christopher Jacobson; South Dakota Chorale)

CHAMBER MUSIC/SMALL ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

  • “Buxtehude: Trio Sonatas, Op. 1” — Arcangelo
  • *”Death & the Maiden” — Patricia Kopatchinskaja & the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
  • “Divine Theatre — Sacred Motets by Giaches De Wert” — Stile Antico
  • “Franck, Kurtág, Previn & Schumann” — Joyce Yang & Augustin Hadelich
  • “Martha Argerich & Friends — Live From Lugano 2016” — Martha Argerich & Various Artists

CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTAL SOLO

  • “Bach: The French Suites” — Murray Perahia
  • “Haydn: Cello Concertos” — Steven Isserlis; Florian Donderer, conductor (The Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)
  • “Levina: The Piano Concertos” — Maria Lettberg; Ariane Matiakh, conductor (Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin)
  • “Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2” — Frank Peter Zimmermann; Alan Gilbert, conductor (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester)
  • *”Transcendental” – Daniil Trifonov (below)

CLASSICAL SOLO VOCAL ALBUM

  • “Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas” — Philippe Jaroussky; Petra Müllejans, conductor (Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann & Juan de la Rubia; Freiburger Barockorchester)
  • *”Crazy Girl Crazy — Music by Gershwin, Berg & Berio” — Barbara Hannigan (Orchestra Ludwig)
  • “Gods & Monsters” — Nicholas Phan; Myra Huang, accompanist
  • “In War & Peace — Harmony Through Music” — Joyce DiDonato; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor (Il Pomo D’Oro)
  • “Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift” — Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra & Style of Five Ensemble)

CLASSICAL COMPENDIUM

  • “Barbara” — Alexandre Tharaud; Cécile Lenoir, producer
  • *”Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto” (below with the first movement of the Viola Concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom) — Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
  • “Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble & Choir” — Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor; Guido Tichelman, producer
  • “Les Routes de l’Esclavage” — Jordi Savall, conductor; Benjamin Bleton, producer
  • “Mademoiselle: Première Audience — Unknown Music of Nadia Boulanger” — Lucy Mauro; Lucy Mauro, producer

CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL COMPOSITION

  • “Danielpour: Songs of Solitude” — Richard Danielpour, composer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • *”Higdon: Viola Concerto” — Jennifer Higdon, composer (below)(Roberto Díaz, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • “Mansurian: Requiem” — Tigran Mansurian, composer (Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • “Schoenberg, Adam: Picture Studies” — Adam Schoenberg, composer (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
  • “Zhou Tian: Concerto for Orchestra” — Zhou Tian, composer (Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)


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Classical music: What music best expresses the “bomb-cyclone” and Arctic blasts?

January 6, 2018
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Weather-wise, the past couple of weeks have been unforgettable and, in many ways, unbearable.

First, around Christmas, we had one bitterly cold Arctic blast.

Then after New Year’s Day came the massive “bomb-cyclone” that brought snow and ice, high winds and flooding, to the East Coast all the way from Florida to Maine.

Next came another Arctic blast – that put most of the country into the deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures that broke records over a century old.

(How, The Ear wonders, does the Arctic blast differ from the Polar Vortex of a few years ago? And who invents such colorful names that certainly seem new.)

Such extreme wintry weather has brought misery, hardship and even death to wherever it struck.

With luck, the coming week will see a return to more normal temperatures and more normal winter weather.

Still, the past few weeks got The Ear to wondering: What music best expresses such extreme kind of winter weather?

The highly virtuosic and aptly named “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11, by Frederic Chopin came to mind. Its swirling notes suggest the howling wind and bitter cold while the minor-key melody has a certain dirge-like or funereal quality to it.

You can hear it played by Evgeny Kissin in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear is sure that many readers could suggest other musical depictions of extreme winter weather.

So please leave the name of the composer, the title of the work and, if possible, a link to a YouTube video performance at the bottom.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are the classical music nominations for the 2018 Grammy Awards. They make a great holiday gift list of gives and gets

December 2, 2017
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This posting is both a news story and a holiday gift guide of recordings you might like to give or get.

It features the classical music nominations for the Grammy Awards that were just announced this past week.

The winners will be announced on a live broadcast on Sunday night, Jan. 28, on CBS.

Read them and then in the COMMENT section tell us which title you think will win in a specific category and what you think of the recordings you know firsthand.

HISTORICAL ALBUMS:

  • “The Goldberg Variations — the Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions June 1955” — Robert Russ, compilation producer; Matthias Erb, Martin Kistner & Andreas K. Meyer, mastering engineers (Glenn Gould)
  • Leonard Bernstein — the Composer” — Robert Russ, compilation producer; Martin Kistner & Andreas K. Meyer, mastering engineers (Leonard Bernstein)

ENGINEERED ALBUM, CLASSICAL

  • “Danielpour: Songs of Solitude & War Songs” — Gary Call, engineer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • “Kleiberg: Mass for Modern Man” — Morten Lindberg, engineer (Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Trondheim Vokalensemble & Trondheim Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Schoenberg, Adam: American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies” — Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
  • “Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio” — Mark Donahue, engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Tyberg: Masses” — John Newton, engineer; Jesse Brayman, mastering engineer (Brian A. Schmidt, Christopher Jacobson & South Dakota Chorale)

PRODUCER OF THE YEAR, CLASSICAL

  • Blanton Alspaugh
  • Manfred Eicher
  • David Frost
  • Morten Lindberg
  • Judith Sherman (below)

ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE

  • “Concertos for Orchestra” — Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches” — Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
  • “Debussy: Images; Jeux & La Plus Que Lente” — Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
  • “Mahler: Symphony No. 5” — Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra)
  • “Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio” — Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

OPERA RECORDING

  • “Berg: Lulu” — Lothar Koenigs, conductor; Daniel Brenna, Marlis Petersen & Johan Reuter; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)
  • “Berg: Wozzeck” — Hans Graf, conductor; Anne Schwanewilms & Roman Trekel; Hans Graf, producer (Houston Symphony; Chorus of Students and Alumni, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University & Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus)
  • “Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de Perles” — Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Diana Damrau, Mariusz Kwiecień, Matthew Polenzani & Nicolas Testé; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
  • “Handel: Ottone” — George Petrou, conductor; Max Emanuel Cencic & Lauren Snouffer; Jacob Händel, producer (Il Pomo D’Oro)
  • “Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel” — Valery Gergiev, conductor; Vladimir Feliauer, Aida Garifullina & Kira Loginova; Ilya Petrov, producer (Mariinsky Orchestra; Mariinsky Chorus)

CHORAL PERFORMANCE

  • “Bryars: The Fifth Century” — Donald Nally, conductor (PRISM Quartet; The Crossing)
  • “Handel: Messiah” — Andrew Davis, conductor; Noel Edison, chorus master (Elizabeth DeShong, John Relyea, Andrew Staples & Erin Wall; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir)
  • “Mansurian: Requiem” — Alexander Liebreich, conductor; Florian Helgath, chorus master (Anja Petersen & Andrew Redmond; Münchener Kammerorchester; RIAS Kammerchor)
  • “Music of the Spheres” — Nigel Short, conductor (Tenebrae)
  • “Tyberg: Masses” — Brian A. Schmidt, conductor (Christopher Jacobson; South Dakota Chorale)

CHAMBER MUSIC/SMALL ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

  • “Buxtehude: Trio Sonatas, Op. 1” — Arcangelo
  • “Death & the Maiden” — Patricia Kopatchinskaja & the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
  • “Divine Theatre — Sacred Motets by Giaches De Wert” — Stile Antico
  • “Franck, Kurtág, Previn & Schumann” — Joyce Yang & Augustin Hadelich
  • “Martha Argerich & Friends — Live From Lugano 2016” — Martha Argerich & Various Artists

CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTAL SOLO

  • “Bach: The French Suites” — Murray Perahia
  • “Haydn: Cello Concertos” — Steven Isserlis; Florian Donderer, conductor (The Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)
  • “Levina: The Piano Concertos” — Maria Lettberg; Ariane Matiakh, conductor (Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin)
  • “Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2” — Frank Peter Zimmermann; Alan Gilbert, conductor (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester)
  • “Transcendental” – Daniil Trifonov

CLASSICAL SOLO VOCAL ALBUM

  • “Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas” — Philippe Jaroussky; Petra Müllejans, conductor (Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann & Juan de la Rubia; Freiburger Barockorchester)
  • “Crazy Girl Crazy — Music by Gershwin, Berg & Berio” — Barbara Hannigan (Orchestra Ludwig)
  • “Gods & Monsters” — Nicholas Phan; Myra Huang, accompanist
  • “In War & Peace — Harmony Through Music” — Joyce DiDonato; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor (Il Pomo D’Oro)
  • “Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift” — Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra & Style of Five Ensemble)

CLASSICAL COMPENDIUM

  • “Barbara” — Alexandre Tharaud; Cécile Lenoir, producer
  • “Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto” — Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
  • “Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble & Choir” — Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor; Guido Tichelman, producer
  • “Les Routes de l’Esclavage” — Jordi Savall, conductor; Benjamin Bleton, producer
  • “Mademoiselle: Première Audience — Unknown Music of Nadia Boulanger” — Lucy Mauro; Lucy Mauro, producer

CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL COMPOSITION

  • “Danielpour: Songs of Solitude” — Richard Danielpour, composer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • “Higdon: Viola Concerto” — Jennifer Higdon, composer (Roberto Díaz, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
  • “Mansurian: Requiem” — Tigran Mansurian, composer (Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • “Schoenberg, Adam: Picture Studies” — Adam Schoenberg, composer (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
  • “Zhou Tian: Concerto for Orchestra” — Zhou Tian, composer (Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Opening Gala concert with a guest soloist and big pieces, and move the all-orchestra concert to a later date?

October 28, 2017
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

You can’t blame longtime music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) for wanting to put the spotlight on the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he has built up over nearly 25 years.

After all, the orchestra members play well and respond superbly to DeMain’s direction, no matter what you might think of his programming and interpretations. He is proud of them with good reason.

So The Ear can easily understand why for the past few years DeMain has chosen to use an all-orchestra concert, with its principals taking the place of guest soloists, to open the season.

Yet DeMain also likes to emphasize the challenges he faces in selling tickets, filling seats and keeping the MSO a commercially successful orchestra.

The Ear noticed that this year, the all-orchestra opening concert of works by Bach-Stokowski, Mendelssohn and Berlioz, with principal violist Christopher Dozoryst as soloist, seemed to draw a smaller and less enthusiastic audience than the second concert did last weekend.

That second concert included the “Mother Goose” Suite by Ravel, the surefire “New World” Symphony by Dvorak and the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber with guest pianist Olga Kern (below). The audience wildly cheered her and her flashy, virtuosic playing until it received an encore (the Prokofiev etude heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So the question came to The Ear:

Should the MSO return to a traditional Gala Opening, with a surefire program and a high-profile guest soloist, and leave the all-orchestra concert until the second concert of the season?

The Ear checked out what other orchestras do.

This year, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Philharmonic opened with a gala program that featured pianists Yuja Wang and Jean-Yves Thibaudet teaming up in an all-Mozart program. The San Francisco Orchestra featured superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed pianist Emanuel Ax and the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial is being celebrated this season. The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened with Frederica von Stade, plus other singers, in an all-Bernstein program.

True, the Sheboygan Symphony also used the all-orchestra opener, and The Ear is sure there are many other orchestras, including some prominent ones, that do the same.

But it got The Ear to wondering. So he asked some other loyal MSO fans what they thought about returning to a traditional Gala Opening – one that announces to potential subscribers that great soloists will be featured during the season – and then moving the all-orchestra concert to a different date.

All the people he spoke to agreed that such a move would probably draw bigger audiences and capture the public’s attention better. One loyal patron even said that by going to the all-orchestra opening, the MSO (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) was “just being cheap.”

Plans are probably already being made for next season, so it is likely too late to make any changes that soon.

But what about the 2018-19 season?

What do you think?

Should the Madison Symphony Orchestra return to a traditional Gala Opening that features big-name soloists and well-known pieces?

Should it move the all-orchestra concert with principal soloists to, say, the second concert of the season?

Or should things stay the way they are?

Which way do you think would be more commercially successful and sell more seats for that concert and for the rest of the season?

And which way would be more artistically satisfying?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


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.


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
3 Comments

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.


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