The Well-Tempered Ear

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

January 6, 2018
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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 Top 20 classical recordings of 2017 as chosen by famed radio station WQXR

December 14, 2017
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As he has done in previous years, this year The Ear is offering various compendiums of the best classical recordings from the past year.

Such lists are, of course, subjective.

But many of the “judges” have a vast experience with classical music and are worth listening to and at least considering.

The lists can give you an idea of new artists and trends as well as of new releases of famous artists and tried-and-true repertoire.

So far, The Ear has offered the nominees for Grammy Awards. But that list is chosen by the industry.

Here is a link to that Grammy list:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2018-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/

The famed New York City radio station WQXR seems more objective and less commercial, although you will find well known veteran artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Evgeny Kissin mixed in with newcomers such as pianist Beatrice Rana (below).

The genres and periods are quite mixed too, going from early music to new music, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov.

Similarly, the list has familiar labels and small, relatively unknown labels.

The list could serve as a guide to what you want to give as a gift or what you want to receive as a gift.

But you can also take the list just as more information about the classical music scene, which is under-reported in the mainstream media.

In addition, each of the 20 selections features the CD album cover and a sound sample of the recording and a compact explanation of what makes the performance exceptional or outstanding.

Here is a link:

http://www.wqxr.org/story/best-classical-recordings-2017/

Hope you enjoy it.

Use the COMMENT section to let us know what you think and whether you agree or disagree with the choices.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Farley’s Salon Piano Series starts a new season this coming Sunday afternoon with the prize-winning Varshavski-Shapiro piano duo. Plus, tonight is your last chance to hear and see the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.”

October 28, 2014
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ALERT: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall on Bascom Hill, is your last chance to hear the University Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s comic chamber opera “Albert Herring,” which is based on a short story by the 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant. (Below, in a photo by Michael R. Anderson, is a crucial scene.)

Tickets are available at the door. They are $22 for the public, $18 for seniors and $10 for students.

Here is a link with more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/brittens-albert-herring-3/

And here is a link to a review by John W. Barker of Isthmus. The Ear, who saw the Sunday afternoon performance instead of the opening on Friday night, agrees with Barker on the major points:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=43859&sid=bd26396e522b7c37c6f143f5598af822

University Opera Albert Herring Michael R. Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Farley’s House of Pianos will host five concerts in the Salon Piano Series’ 2014-15 season, which starts this coming Sunday:

The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo (below), this Sunday, November 2, at 4 p.m., in music by Schubert, Ravel, Milhaud, Saint-Saens and Poulenc.

varshavski shapiro duet

Pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), Sunday, January 25, 2015, at 4 p.m. in music by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Schumann.

ilya yakushev 3

Pianist Marco Grieco (below), Friday, March 13, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. in music by Johann Sebatsian Bach-Feruccio Busoni, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.

marco grieco

Pianist Martin Kasík (below), Saturday, April 18, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. in music by Beethoven, Ravel and Prokofiev.

martin kasik

A spring jazz concert, still to be announced

These concerts constitute the second season of the Salon Piano Series, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by Tim and Renée Farley to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos.

The setting replicates that experienced by audiences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and enhances collaboration between performer and audience.

The Series offers audiences the chance to hear upcoming and well-known artists whose inspiring performances are enhanced by the setting and the fine pianos. Some performances are preceded by free lectures. An artists’ reception with light food and beverages follows each concert and is included in the ticket price.

VARSHAVSKI AND SHAPIRO

Here is more about the opening concert:

The program features: “Variations on a French Song”, D. 624, one piano-four hands, by Franz Schubert; “La Valse” for one piano-four hands by Maurice Ravel; the exciting and lyrical Brazil-inspired “Scaramouche” suite by Darius Milhaud (heard at the bottom played by piano superstars Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin in a YouTube video); “Variation on a Theme by Beethoven” for two pianos by Camille Saint-Saens; and the Sonata for Two Pianos by Francis Poulenc.

Ukrainian Stanislava Varshavski and Russian Diana Shapiro’s partnership began in 1998, while the two were students at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy in Israel. One year later, they won first prize at the International Piano Duo Competition in Bialystok, Poland.

Stanislava Varshavski-Diana Shapiro

Since then, the ensemble has participated in international festivals and performed solo recitals in at least eight different countries, and has appeared with a number of well-known orchestras, such as the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New World Symphony Orchestra of Miami.

In 2005, they placed first in the prestigious Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. Varshavski and Shapiro both hold doctorates in Musical Arts from University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where they studied under Martha Fischer. The duo appeared together at Farley’s in 2012 when they premiered the Villa Louis Steinway Centennial grand (below) that was rebuilt in the Farley workshop. Learn more about the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo at www.piano-4-hands.com.

Farley 1877 piano

SALON PIANO SERIES

Visit http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html for complete concert programs, and artist information. Tickets are $35 for each concert and can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com

Tickets are also available at Farley’s House of Pianos and Orange Tree Imports.

Farley’s House of Pianos is located at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near the Beltline and West Towne. Plenty of free parking is available at Farley’s House of Pianos, and it is easy to reach by bicycle or Madison Metro.

 

 


Classical music: On Tuesday night pianist Jeffrey Siegel wraps up his 26th — and probably his LAST — season in Madison of “Keyboard Conversations” with love-inspired music by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and Brahms.

May 5, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Tuesday night, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, pianist Jeffrey Siegel (below) will present this season’s last Keyboard Conversation, dedicated to love and love affairs by major Romantic composers, including Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy.

According to sources, it will be Jeffrey Siegel’s last season of being sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater, which is using Mills Hall during renovations that will end this year when the hall reopens in the fall.

The Ear understands that the WUT tried to turn the declining attendance around for several years, but to no avail. So barring self-sponsorship or a new sponsor this concert is likely to be the last Keyboard Conversation in Madison. After more than a quarter century, that will be the sad end of a tradition.

The program includes the “Allegro non troppo ma enegetico” movement from the Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor by Brahms; the Novelette, No. 1, plus “Warum?” (Why?) and “Aufschwung’ (Soaring) from Schumann’s “Fantasy Pieces; “Au bord d’une source” (At the Spring) and the popular “Liebestraum No. “3 (Love’s Dream, heard at bottom in a popular YouTube performance by Evgeny Kissin) by Franz Liszt; the “Minute” Waltz and the “Larghetto” slow second movement from the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Chopin; and “L’Isle joyeuse” (The Joyous Island) by Debussy.”

Jeffrey Siegel 2014

More information is available by calling the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787). Tickets are: $32 for the General Public, $28 for Wisconsin Union Members, UW-Madison Faculty and Staff, and Non UW-Madison Student (with ID); and FREE for UW-Madison Student (with ID).

Buy tickets online here, call the Box Office at 608-265-ARTS (2787), or purchase in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

Tickets are required for entry even when free, so please reserve ahead of time.

For more information, including reviews and audio samples, visit:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season13-14/Keyboard-Conversations-Mistresses.html

Adds the Wisconsin Union Theater press release: “Whether you’re a classical music aficionado, a history buff, or just love a good story, Jeffrey Siegel’s Keyboard Conversations will take you beyond the music and into the lives and loves of some of the greatest composers of all time.

“In “Mistresses and Masterpieces,” Siegel introduces us to the romantic inspirations behind many popular works of classical music. While names like “Brahms” and “Schumann” may bring to mind proper-looking gentlemen in oil portraits, these brilliant composers’ lives were often closer to a soap opera than a history book blurb.

“As Siegel will tell you, these men not only loved and lost — they put their pain and passion into incredible works of music that still inspire those emotions to this day. Read more about these affairs in our blog.

“For the 26th consecutive season, Jeffrey Siegel presents his entertaining and informative concerts with commentary. He speaks to the audience briefly and in non-technical language before performing each composition in its entirety. The program will conclude with a Q and A.

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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society triumphs and gets a standing ovation from a full house for bringing dramatic story-telling to the romantic music of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

June 25, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It was nothing short of a triumph for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The Ear surely couldn’t be the only listener who came  away Saturday night deeply moved from the Overture Center’s Playhouse — and from the fourth concert of the six that the Madison-based BDDS is offering this month — with one overpowering thought: We need more of this!

We need more concerts with first-rate songs and first-rate singing. And we need more concerts that have a narrative and tell the personal story behind the music and musicians they feature.

BDDS deuces are wild logo

A lot of musical groups and individuals today offer brief introductory remarks to help prepare audiences. And that is fine. Experts say that providing that kind of listener-friendly context will help draw younger, newer and bigger audiences.

In this 22nd summer season, when the theme of card playing is highlighted, BDDS trumped that wisdom and raised the stakes by going one better, by upping the ante: Co-founder and co-director pianist Jeffrey Sykes, who got his doctorate at the UW School of Music and now teaches at the University of California-Berkley, showed his inventive theatrical side by creating an original story about the complex romances of Robert Schumann, his wife Clara Wieck Schumann and the young Johannes Brahms –- whose photographic portraits were projected on the backdrop (below).

BDDS 4 backdrop photos

Moreover, Sykes’ two-act mini-drama -– an experimental scissors-and-paste tapestry woven together with snippets of letters, diary entries and of course music -– proved successful on every count. It was greeted with cries of Bravo! and an enthusiastic, prolonged standing ovation.

BDDS 4 ovation

Of course, Sykes was not alone in bringing this successful experiment off. He had the help of his co-founder and co-director flutist Stephanie Jutt.

Most importantly, for this concert he had the top-flight talents of bass-baritone Timothy Jones (below top), whose diction and tone are superb, and of the UW-Madison graduate and Lyric Opera of Chicago soprano Emily Birsan (below bottom), who possesses equally beautiful tone and excellent German as well as French.

Timothy Jones posed portrait

Emily Birsan less tarty 2 NoCredit

BDDS also drew on the talents of Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera maestro John DeMain, a willing sport who did terrific double-duty as a pianist and as Clara’s difficult father Friedrich Weick. The singers also did double duty with Jones playing Robert Schumann and Birsan playing Clara Weick.

Flutist Jutt played Romances by both Robert and Clara Schumann, the first transcribed from the oboe and the second from the violin. Her performances and her readings too were expressive and fit right in with the playing and recitations from others.

The excerpts that Sykes chose from song cycles were spot on, especially from the heart-wrenching cycle by Schumann’s “A Woman’s Life and Loves.”

But nowhere was the formula of tinkering with tried-and-true classics more successful than in Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung” (Dedication), which was used to mark the consummation of the romance when a German court decides, over father Friedrich Wieck‘s libelous objections, that Roberta and Clara can indeed marry.

The song, usually sung by either a male or female voice, was shared. (For the usual interpretations, see the YouTube videos at the bottom with Jessye Norman and Hermann Prey.) And the duet was profoundly moving as Jones’ Robert and Birsan’s Clara walked free and in love off the stage and arm-in-arm to conclude the first half (below).

BDDS 4 Timothy Jones, Emily Birsan

Similarly, when Birsan’s Clara sang “Now you have hurt me for the first time” after her beloved Robert had died, was there a dry eye in the house? Not where I sat – and I doubt where many others sat too.

Sykes wove his tapestry seamlessly. He also took a letter about a short musical theme or motif that came to the delusional Robert Schumann in the insane asylum, where his wife Clara was forbidden from visiting him until two days before he died. And then he wrapped a letter by Robert around it as well as a letter that Brahms later wrote to introduce to Clara his variations on that theme same for piano-four-hands, performed by Sykes and DeMain as the conclusion finale.

Of course one can nitpick. Given how much solo piano music, filled with bittersweet longing, that both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms composed, I kept wondering why the program didn’t include the short and deeply moving Romance in F-sharp Major by Schumann which Clara asked her grandson Ferdinand to play while she lay expiring on her deathbed. (It is below top, in a YouTube video) Or play the late Romance in F Major, Op. 18, No. 5, by Brahms (below bottom, in a YouTube video by Evgeny Kissin). How The Ear would have loved to hear Sykes, with his rich tone and natural lyricism, perform these miniature gems.

But you can’t have everything and what we got was plenty generous. It cohered. It moved you. And it provided an intelligent context for understanding the romance behind the great Romantic music of these Romantic composers.

All paintings need a frame, and so does a lot of music. This frame could not have been better designed and executed or more beautiful.

But that Schumann-Brahms drama-concert was not the only reason to take in the second of the three weekends of music by the BDDS.

Just the night before at the refurbished Stoughton Opera House, the group used the same singers to perform another great concert. The program was timely and relevant, given both the Afghanistan War and the anniversary of the America Civil War.

The musical offerings featured Timothy Jones in Ned Rorem’s movingly spiky and grim “War Scenes” songs drawn from Walt Whitman’s Civil War notebooks (“The real war will never get in the books’) and Emily Birsan in “Sonnets to Cassandra” by the French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard by the underplayed and underrated Swiss composer Frank Martin.

BDDS 3 Timothy Jones Ned Rorem

BDDS 3 Emily Birsan Frank Martin

The concert began with a flute quartet by Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven who nicely fit the theme of a “Stacked Deck” since history has largely overlooked and forgotten him. (But, you know, Beethoven really wasn’t much of a flute guy anyway.)

BDDS 3 Ferdinand Ries flute quartet

The real gem came when several local string players – violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Parry Karp of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet and principal violist Christopher Dozoryst of the Madison Symphony Orchestra – joined pianist Sykes  in playing a superb rendition, by turns turbulent and lyrical, of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. in G Minor (below).

BDDS 3 Faure piano quartet 2

It was yet another reminder of how, like BDDS, Faure is a first-rate composer, with a sound and style unmistakably his own, who deserves a much higher profile and a much wider hearing.

Next weekend brings two final BDDS concerts — in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green — with violinist Naha Greenholtz (concertmaster of the Madison Symphony) and San Francisco Trio members violinist Axel Strauss (now teaching at McGill University in Montreal) as well as cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau in music by Copland, Mozart, Brahms, Korngold, Beethoven and Dick Kattenburg.

For more information about the times and venues, the programs, the performers and tickets, here is a link:

http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

If you love classical music, to miss these BDDS performance is to deprive yourself of great pleasure and great insight, of new exposure to works both well-known and neglected. Why would you want to do that?


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