The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi

September 26, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

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

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.

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Classical music education: Here are 10 reasons why students should be allowed to major in music

August 29, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many, maybe most, of the college and university students are back by now.

And a week from tomorrow, classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will begin.

K-12 classes in public schools and private schools will also start, if they haven’t already, as will another year of music lessons.

And so will the new concert season.

Coincidentally, The Ear came across a post from Forbes magazine that deals with whether students should be allowed to major in music (below, in a photo by Shutterstock).

Many parents, and many politicians too, feel that more practical, higher paying fields are better investments of energy, time and especially money.

The same logic applies these days to the arts and humanities versus the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Anyway, the advice columnist Liz Ryan answered the question with 10 reasons why it is a good idea to let a student major in music.

The Ear –- who is an avid defender of the liberal arts and of college years not as a trade school but as a chance to explore and experiment — thought that whether you are a student, parent or teacher, you might be interested in reading the reasons why a music major makes sense.

Here is a link:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2017/06/04/ten-reasons-to-let-your-kid-major-in-music/


Classical music: What’s the point of the new “Hyperpiano” if it just mars the music, frustrates the performer and alienates the audience?

November 3, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Like everyone in the almost sold-out house at Mills Hall last Friday night, The Ear went to hear the wonderfully gifted UW-Madison piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor unveil his new hi-tech invention: the so-called “Hyperpiano.”

Taylor (below) patiently explained in detail how the hybrid electronic-acoustic piano was conceived and developed, and then how it worked.

Here is a link to two stories with detailed background:

https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/christopher-taylor-to-debut-new-piano/

Hyperpiano explaining

But at the risk of hurting the feelings of the brilliant and personable Taylor, The Ear has to confess: He left the event – more an experiment or demonstration than a concert – disappointed. He just doesn’t see the point. It seems a case where the idea will inevitably prove superior to the reality.

This new piano, conceived and executed by Taylor with lots of help, features a digital-like console (below) with two keyboards. The console then links up electronically to two regular acoustic concert grand pianos by means of lots of wires. Wires pass along electronic digital impulses to mechanical fingers that hit actual piano keys and makes traditional pianos play.

Hyperpiano console

If the Hyperpiano sounds like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, well, that’s because it IS. Ingenious, yes; practical, hardly.

The piece Taylor used to demonstrate his new piano was the momentous and magnificent “Goldberg” Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, a promising and appealing challenge for the new piano. The Ear has heard Taylor play this music before, and it was a memorable experience. 

Not this time.

A great instrument is supposed to make playing easier, to bring both the performer and the audience closer to the music. But this new piano interfered with both and did just the opposite. It put you on edge, just waiting for the next thing to go wrong and get fixed and then go wrong again. It made no sense, and little beauty.

Hyperpiano fixing a problem

Clearly the Hyperpiano – more accurately dubbed Frankenpiano by Taylor’s students — is a technological curiosity that is still a work-in-progress, with lots of snags and flaws that became apparent during 2-1/2 hours.

But even had it worked perfectly, The Ear asks: What is the point?

Certainly it makes for an interesting electrical engineering problem to solve, one that eats up lots of time, thought, energy and money. But why have three $100,000 concert grand pianos and a custom-built piano console all on the stage when a single traditional piano would do the job just fine?

Hyperpiano stage

Single-keyboard pianos have brought us many memorable performances of the Goldbergs – including those by Rosalyn Tureck, Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Jeremy Denk, Murray Perahia and Angela Hewitt among others, to say nothing of Taylor himself.

And on stage was an old one-of-a-kind, two-keyboard Steinway that Taylor has used before to fine effect, rather like the two-manual harpsichord that Bach originally wrote the music for and that facilitates the difficult cross-hand passages.

Despite distractions, Taylor played the Bach with total commitment and enthusiasm as well as with his back to the audience, as piano recitals used to be played before the young Franz Liszt turned the piano sideways to show off his heart-throb profile.

Yet the misfiring of electrodes plus an unending loud chirp or tweet and the uneven pistons or clunky mini-jackhammers (below) that hit the keyboards as artificial “fingers” just meant a lot of dropped notes and, for the most part, a very choppy reading of Bach’s great music that stymied both the performer and the listeners.

Hyperpiano fingers

Compounding the performance was that Taylor took all the repeats, which often just doubled the frustration. How The Ear wishes Taylor had played just the first half on the Hyperpiano and then, for comparison, switched to a regular piano or to the two-keyboard Steinway.

True, at the end the audience gave Taylor well earned applause and a prolonged standing ovation. But The Ear suspects it was more for his perseverance, patience, good humor and stupendous effort than for the music itself or the new piano. He bets only a very few listeners would pay to go back to hear another recital on the Hyperpiano.

Will Taylor continue to work on improving the terrifically complex Hyperpiano? Yes, one suspects that he will and one wishes him success. But wouldn’t all that time and effort be better spent learning new music and performing it?

The Ear says: Enough hype about the Hyperpiano!

It’s time for a great musician to get back to the music.

Did you go hear the Hyperpiano?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This is your brain on music! New scientific research shows that the human brain evolved special channels for hearing music. Read all about it!

February 13, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is your brain like on music? (The illustration below is by Marcos Chin.)

music and brain CR Marcos Chin

One of the most fascinating stories The Ear has ever read about music and science came last Tuesday in this week’s Science Times section of The New York Times.

The “Music Channel” story was reported by the acclaimed science writer  and journalist Natalie Angier (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been nominated for a National Book Award She also included a sidebar story about her own experience undergoing the kind of MRI scan that helped researchers.

natalie angier

The upshot is this: No matter what kind of music you like – classical, jazz, folk, country, rock, pop – the human brain has developed special neural pathways to perceive the music.

In short, the human brain seems to have its own music room.

The story says this may help to explain why music seems a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon and why the first music instruments, such as the vulture bone flute found in Germany (below, in a photo by Jensen of the University of Tubingen) date back 42,000 years — some 24,000 years before the first cave painting appear in Lascaux, France.

Vulture bone flute CR Jensen:University of Tubingen

Plus, the story points out that the scientists and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not get the same result with non-musical noises. The special nerve pathways or circuits seem to have evolved specifically to receive musical information.

There is a lot more fascinating information in the story.

For The Ear, the bottom line is that we are closer to knowing why music has such deep appeal in so many different ways. And the researchers say that this study is just the beginning. (You can hear more about the effects of music on the human brain and body in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear looks forward to seeing more research about why music is special to the human brain: Is it the structure of music? The logic and intellectual content? Primarily the melody or harmony or rhythm? The emotional content?

Here is a link to the must-read story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?_r=0

And here is the sidebar story, “Lending Her Ears to MIT Experiment,” about Natalie Angier’s own experience with the MIT research study about music and the human brain. It explains the research methods in details from a subjective point of view:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/lending-her-ears-to-an-mit-experiment.html


Classical music: The Madison Youth Choirs’ Winter Concerts this Sunday will explore links between science and music. Plus, the UW Wind Ensemble performs a FREE concert Thursday night.

December 10, 2015
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ALERT: Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Wind Ensemble will perform a FREE concert. The program features “Concerto X” by Scott McAllister with clarinet soloist Wesley Warnhoff, adjunct professor of clarinet. It is a work based on grunge music that was born in the heavy metal music of the late 80s and early 90s, including a melody from Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Also on the program is “In Wartime” by David Del Tredici, which was inspired by the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001; and the Second Suite in F Major for Military Band by Gustav Holst.

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend at Madison Youth Choirs writes:

On this Sunday, Dec. 13, the young singers of Madison Youth Choirs (MYC, seen below at the Winter Concert last year) will present the 2015 Winter Concert Series, “Inquiry: Science, Music, Imagination” at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, 1609 University Avenue, near Camp Randall.

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concert 2014

Over 14 weeks of rehearsals in preparation for the concerts, the 330 young vocalists (ages 7-18) in MYC’s nine performing choirs have been learning to use the tools of observation, experimentation, and analysis to reach a deeper understanding of their choral repertoire.

Students have also begun to recognize the role that resilience plays in both scientific and musical fields, learning how to work through moments of frustration and uncertainty to reach new discoveries.

The choirs will perform a varied program, including works by Benjamin Britten, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Vincent Persichetti; a Peruvian lament, a Spanish villancico, and a newly-created arrangement of the oldest-known surviving English song.

Tickets for each of the three concerts (high school ensembles at 1:30 p.m., boychoirs at 4 p.m., girlchoirs at 7 p.m.) will be $10 for general admission, $5 for students age 7-18 and free for children under 7.

Audience members will need a separate ticket for each concert.

Here is the schedule:

1:30 p.m. High School Ensembles featuring a guest appearance by the MYC-Capitol Lakes Intergenerational Choir

4 p.m. Boychoirs

7 p.m. Girlchoirs

Tickets available at the door, $10 for general admission, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7

This concert is generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from the American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, the Madison Community Foundation, and the Wisconsin Arts Board. 

Here is a repertoire list for the programs:

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

Bel Tempo Che Vola ……………….Jean Baptiste Lully

Weep No More………………………..David Childs

Songbird…………………………………Sarah Quartel

Sound the Trumpet………………….Henry Purcell

When I Set Out for Lyonesse……Keith Bissell

Ragazzi (below in a photo by Karen Holland)

Regina Coeli (sung in Italian)……Gregorian chant, ca. 10th century

Regina Coeli (sung in Italian)……Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Song of Peace……………………………Vincent Persichetti

Dulaman (sung in Gaelic) …………Michael McGlynn

Madison Youth Choirs Ragazzi cr Karen Holland

Cantabile

Utopia………………………………………………………..Moira Smiley

Lacrimoso son io (K. 555, sung in Italian)…….Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Gods Have Heard My Vows…………………….Thomas Weelkes

Palomita……………………………………………………..Traditional Peruvian lament

Hoj, hura, hoj!………………………………………………………..Omar Macha

Madison Youth Choirs Cantabile

Cantabile and Ragazzi

Apple-Tree Wassail………………………Stephen Hatfield

MYC/Capitol Lakes Intergenerational Choir and Combined Choirs

Forever Young……………………………..Bob Dylan

4 p.m. Concert (Featuring Boychoirs)

Combined boychoirs, Purcell, Britten, Holst, Ragazzi

Intonent Hodie…………………………………..Anonymous (probably 12th century)

Sainte Nicholaes (sung in Latin)…………..Godric of Finchale

Purcell

Singt den Herrn (sung in German)…Michael Praetorius

Who Can Sail……………………………..Norwegian Folk Song, Arr. Jeanne Julseth-Heinrich

Rolling Down to Rio……………………Edward German

Britten (below with Purcell Choir in a photo by Karen Holland)

Rattlesnake Skipping Song……Derek Holman

Tit-for-Tat…………………………….Benjamin Britten

Jerusalem……………………………..Sir Hubert Parry, poem by William Blake

Madison Youth Purcell and Britten Choirs cr Karen Holland

Holst (below with Pucell and Britten choirs in a photo by Karen Holland)

Riu Riu Chiu (sung in Spanish)….Anonymous, from Villancicos de diversos Autores

Anima Mea (sung in Latin)……….Michael Praetorius

The Sound of Silence…………………Paul Simon

Ragazzi

Regina Coeli (sung in Italian)………Gregorian chant, ca. 10th century

Regina Coeli (sung in Italian)………Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Song of Peace……………………………..Vincent Persichetti

Dulaman (sung in Gaelic) ……………Michael McGlynn

Combined boychoirs, Purcell, Britten, Holst, Ragazzi

Hava Nashira (sung in Hebrew)……….Traditional Hebrew canon

Madison Youth Choirs boychoirs Purcell, Britten and Holst CR Karen Holland

7 p.m. Concert (Featuring Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

Hava Nashira (sung in Hebrew)……….Traditional Hebrew canon

You’ll Never Guess What I Saw………….Ruth Watson Henderson

Suo Gan…………………………………..Welsh Lullaby, Arr. by Alec Rowley

Tailor of Gloucester…………………..English Folk Song, Arr. by Cyndee Giebler

Con Gioia (below in a photo by Karen Holland)

Donkey Carol………………………….John Rutter

Mid-Winter…………………………….Bob Chilcott

Fancie……………………………………Benjamin Britten

Madison Youth Choirs Con Gioia Karen Holland

Capriccio (below in a photo by Mike Ross)

Sound the Trumpet………………………………Henry Purcell

An die Musik (D. 547, sung in German, heard at bottom in a YouTube video with soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and pianist Gerald Moore)…..Franz Schubert

Palomita (sung in Spanish)……Traditional Peruvian lament, Arr. by Randal Swiggum

Niska Banja………………………….Serbian Gypsy Dance, Arr. by Nick Page

Madison Youth Choir Capriccio CR Mike Ross

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC): Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.


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