The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Greg Zelek closes out the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s organ recital season this Friday night with music by Bach, Schumann, Franck and Liszt

May 8, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) organist Greg Zelek (below) will perform a recital this Friday night, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State St.

According to the MSO, “Zelek thrilled the Overture audience with his spellbinding debut recital in 2016, and then again with his appearances in 2017 and 2018 as the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new Principal Organist and Curator of the Overture Concert Organ (below).”

This past weekend, Zelek played an impressively virtuosic organ passage in the “Glagolitic Mass” by Leos Janacek and was warmly received by the audience.

This time, Zelek returns to close out the season’s concert organ series in a “Voices of Spring” program of music that includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, John Weaver, Cesar Franck and Gioachino Rossini as well as the  monumental 30-minute Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem unjam” by Franz Liszt.

For the complete program and an audiovisual sample of Zelek’s playing Bach, go to: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/zelek

Zelek recently completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and an Artist Diploma at the Julliard School. Adds the MSP: “Greg continues to cultivate his reputation as one of the most exciting organists in the American organ scene.” (You can hear Zelek play Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D  minor in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Admission for each Overture Concert Organ performance is $20.

Tickets can be purchased at madisonsymphony.org/zelek, (608) 258-4141 or 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 Walter and Karen Pridham. 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, which is the stunning backdrop of all MSO concerts.

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Classical music education: The annual FREE Concert in the Park by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) marks its 15th anniversary this coming Wednesday night.

August 4, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to pass along:

“The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is proud to be a part of Concert in the Park, hosted by The Gialamas Co., for another season.

“This year’s event will take place this coming Wednesday, Aug. 10, from 5 to 10 p.m. at Old Sauk Trails Park, 1200 John Q. Hammons Drive on the far west side of Madison.

WYSO Concert the Park Tent 4

“For eight consecutive years, WYSO has been invited by The Gialamas Company to be a part of this spectacular event. This special FREE concert is a highlight of the summer for concertgoers young and old.

“This particular year features the Youth Orchestra (below) and will celebrate several special anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of WYSO, the 40th anniversary of The Gialamas Company, and the 15th anniversary of Concert in the Park.

WYSO Concert in the Park, playing under Jim Smith 3

“WYSO’s Youth Orchestra will begin their performance at 7 p.m. The Youth Orchestra, under the direction of WYSO Music Director James Smith, will perform: the fourth movement of Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17, by Peter Tchaikovsky; Highlights from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, featuring conductor Michelle Kaebisch; the first movement of the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, by Tchaikovsky featuring Aurora Greane (below top) on violin; “Our Town” by Aaron Copland; the fifth movement of Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70, by Dmitri Shostakovich; and an annual rendition of Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen.

You can hear the Youth Orchestra under Maestro Smith perform Georges Bizet‘s suite from his opera “Carmen” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Aurora Greane

WYSO Concert in Park 2016 cellos 2

“The evening will also see performances of “A Radiant Spirit,” which was composed in honor of WYSO’s 50th anniversary by Andrew Kinney, and of a stunning arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from his Symphony No. 9 “Choral,” arranged by Donald Fraser.

WYSO Concert in Park 2016 from backstage

“The evening will be capped off with a fireworks display.

“Before the event there will be an instrument petting zoo, face painting and an ice cream social. Tables, food and drinks are available for purchase.

WYSO Concert in the Park kids eating ice cream 2

“For more information, visit www.gialamas.com.

“Be sure to stay after the event for a spectacular fireworks show. Set up lawn chairs, layout blankets and put out your picnic baskets as you enjoy all of the music and activities this FREE event has to offer.

fireworks

“For additional information, please contact WYSO at (608) 263-3320 or e-mail wyso@wysomusic.org.”


Classical music: Lesson 1 from the 2015 season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: Chamber music transcriptions, arrangements and reductions of large orchestral works deserve a wider hearing.

July 1, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society finished up its three-week, 24th annual season this past weekend.

The populist chamber music group used local and imported artists to perform six programs over three weekends in three different venues -– all based around the theme of “Guilty as Charged,” which meant emphasizing borrowings and similar transgressionsTalk about a hard-working group of performing artists!

BDDS poster 2015

Over the next week or two, The Ear wants to share some of the lessons that he learned from attending several of the BDS concerts.

Today is Lesson 1: Chamber music transcriptions, arrangements and reductions of large orchestral works deserve a wider hearing so that more people can enjoy those works more often.

I cite two examples from the “Crooked Business” program that BDDS performed at the Stoughton Opera House (below, where I saw and heard it) and at the Hillside Theatre on the Taliesin compound of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Spring Green.

StoughtonOperaHouse,JPG

First, there was the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. BDDS co-founder, co-artist director and house pianist Jeffrey Sykes led the group of 11 players from the keyboard and played with his back to the audience.

(Believe it or not, if The Ear recalls music history correctly, that was the standard performance practice, as was playing with the score, until the legendary piano virtuoso Franz Liszt turned the piano to the side to highlight his dramatic profile and also memorized the music to astonish his audiences.)

The Mozart piano concerto is a great work — you can hear the whole work in its full orchestral version with pianist Mitsuko Uchida in a YouTube video at the bottom. And the arrangement or reduction they used made it seem even more remarkable. That is because the smaller size of the forces allowed one to hear more clearly the interplay of various parts.

BDDS 2015 Mozart C minor piano concerto

Then on the second half of the program came a second example: The Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op 11 (1857) by Johannes Brahms. It was performed with nine players in a reduction by Christopher Nex.

The Ear found the work to be a bit too long and repetitive — the structure of its six movements lacked the tightness of a symphony. But then again, a tuneful serenade is by definition supposed to be lighter and have a looser structure, to spur more relaxed and informal listening and to demand less focused attention.

BDDS 2015 Brahms Serenade 1

Such reductions originated in the desire of amateurs to make house music at a time when professional orchestras and chamber music groups and commercial concerts did not exist in a widespread way.

It is an approach that can and should be revived. To be fair, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has also done a few of these transcriptions or arrangements, often with the Harvard University Mozart scholar and pianist Robert Levin.

But nonetheless it is largely thanks to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society that listeners can make their way through the 27 piano concertos by Mozart and the 104 symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn -– to say nothing of the many Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern works that must already exist in similar arrangements or could be rearranged on demand.

To which The Ear simply says: Bravo! Do more of them!

What do you say?

The Ear -– along with BDDS organizers and performers – wants to hear.


Classical music: UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor says Bach wouldn’t mind being played on the piano and the public should get to know the less virtuosic side of Liszt. He plays concertos by both composers this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

April 6, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s guest Q&A is the acclaimed UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor (below), who won a bronze medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and who has been praised by critics around the world.

Christopher Taylor new profile

Taylor will play a big role this weekend in what, for The Ear, is the most interesting program of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

The program, to be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, includes the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt. The soloist for both is the dynamic and versatile Taylor (below), the resident virtuoso at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Christopher Taylor playing USE

The second half of the program is the Symphony No. 7 by the Late Romantic Austrian composer Anton Bruckner – the first time the MSO has tackled one of Bruckner’s mammoth symphonies.

Anton Bruckner 2

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

Taylor recently agreed to an email Q&A with The Ear:

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

What do you say to early music and period instrument advocates about performing Bach on a modern keyboard versus a harpsichord? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

In matters musical I hope to foster a generally tolerant attitude. I think our art form is a broad and diverse enough domain to allow for the peaceful coexistence of interpretations that pursue varied goals.

Some may seek to recreate, in as precise a way as possible, the experiences of listeners living back in Bach’s day, a perspective that can undoubtedly prove illuminating and satisfying for contemporary audiences.

Others may pursue interpretations that employ more recent, or even completely novel, musical resources, with results that Bach himself might well find startling were he suddenly to return.

Still, given Bach’s documented flexibility regarding instrumentation — the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 was probably originally composed for oboe — I like to think he would be open-minded both towards the piano’s sonority and the interpretive possibilities it suggests.

The piano’s rich and varied sound undoubtedly fits naturally into the modern concert hall setting, and for me personally its character is what I understand and appreciate best.  But again, I am always eager to learn about alternative approaches, and hope that others will listen to me with a similar mindset. (Below, Taylor is seen with the unusual two-keyboard Steinway piano he uses to play Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.)

Christopher Taylor with double keyboard Steinway

How would you compare the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 to Bach’s other ones?

Like all the Bach concertos this work possesses irresistible energy and momentum, paired with lyricism and ingenious construction.  It strikes me as a particularly cheerful specimen — not so imposing or stern as the D minor or F minor concertos, for instance, but more modest in scale and upbeat in mood.

Right from the opening the first movement features an interesting back-and-forth relationship between the soloist and orchestra, with the keyboard seeming suitably soloistic on some occasions, more accompanimental at other moments, and completely united with the strings yet elsewhere.

The slow middle movement has particularly long phrases and sinuous lines, while the finale displays remarkable rhythmic variety, with relatively staid eighth notes taking turns with bustling sixteenth-notes and downright scrambling thirty-second-notes. (You can hear the Bach concerto for yourself in the YouTube video below that features the British pianist Nick Van Bloss who, curiously, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome except when he is playing.)

A lot of listeners know you especially for your interpretations of modern and contemporary composers such as William Bolcom, Gyorgy Ligeti, Derek Bermel and especially Olivier Messiaen. But you are also known for your performances of the “Goldberg” Variations. What are the attractions of Bach’s music for you?

I find in Bach (below) the supreme balance of heart and brain. It is music whose intricacy provides endless material for intellectual stimulation and study, but which nonetheless, in its restrained and elegant way, evokes every imaginable shade of human feeling.

It is hardly surprising that composers as diverse as Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin and Arnold Schoenberg found inspiration in his immortal creations.

Playing his music is a foundational skill for me, providing essential training and background when I approach, for instance, the more recent composers whose challenging works you mention.

Bach1

Liszt is known as probably the greatest piano virtuoso in history who reinvented keyboard technique. How do you see the first concerto in terms of both deeper musicality and sheer spectacle and technical virtuosity?

While Bach may sometimes be stereotyped as hyper-academic and dry, the stereotype associated with Liszt is quite the opposite:  flashy and intellectually shallow.

Neither caricature captures the reality, and I hope that this week’s pair of concertos helps to illustrate the unexpected facets and depths of both composers.

While I have been familiar with the Liszt from a very early age, I only performed it for the first time fairly recently. While learning it I found myself continually surprised by its formal sophistication and intriguing quirkiness.

Certainly it has its moments of raw virtuoso display, but these only constitute one ingredient in a varied dramatic structure. Just as important are the lyrical characters (sometimes cut off short), the playful elements, the eccentric, the grand, the angelic. I have thus come to appreciate how experimental, individualistic, and sophisticated this work really is.

andsnes

How do you view Liszt as a composer compared to his reputation as a performer and teacher? What should the public pay attention to in the Liszt Concerto and is there anything special or usual you try to do with the score?

As I suggested above, I think there’s often a tendency to underestimate Liszt’s compositional import — although admittedly he did produce certain works that feed into the stereotypes distressingly well.

Liszt photo by Pierre Petit

I will hope to bring out this concerto’s interplay of characters and its individualism as vividly as possible. The virtuoso elements will play their part, but I do not wish for them to be the sole focus. (You can hear the concerto played by Martha Argerich in the YouTube video that is below.)

 


Classical music: Need gift suggestions? NPR names its Top 10 classical music albums of 2014. Plus, though Dec. 24 the Madison Symphony Orchestra is offering cut-rate holiday tickets for four spring concerts.

December 14, 2014
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ALERT: The Madison Symphony Orchestra has started its annual holiday cut-rate ticket sale. And you can get some great deals. Between now and Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), you can buy seats for $20 (with a value up to $44) and $45 (valued up to $88). The spring has four concerts, two of which feature piano concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt plus a concert of music by exiles from Nazi Germany in Hollywood during World War II and the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven and a violin concerto by Leonard Bernstein. For more information, visit: http://www.overturecenter.org/events/madison-symphony-orchestra/

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, today is another Shopping Day left before Christmas and other holidays.

With that in mind, The Ear usually offers lists that other media suggest about the best classical music recordings of 2014.

If you recall, I have already posed a link to the 57th annual Grammy Award nominations, which can be useful when it comes to holiday gift-giving.

Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/classical-music-the-57th-annual-grammy-award-nominations-provide-a-useful-guide-to-holiday-gift-giving/

grammy award BIG

And below is a link to the Top 10 classical albums that appeared on the appeared on the NPR (National Public Radio) blog Deceptive Cadence over the weekend. It is an eclectic list that features early music, well-known classics and new music.

You will find music by composers John Dowland, John Adams (below and at bottom in a YouTube video), John Luther Adams and Thomas Adès as well as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen.

John Adams

Performers include violinist Augustin Hadelich (below), who has played twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Leon Fleisher, who performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater; mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; the New York Philharmonic under music director and conductor Alan Gilbert; and the Danish String Quartet playing works by Danish composers.

Augustin Hadelich 1

The list also shows CD covers and feature sound snippets and samples.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/12/11/370067981/best-classical-albums-of-2014

 


Classical music: Bummer!!! The recent recital by YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa proved tedious and showed that great pianists aren’t always great musicians.

November 24, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Valentina Lisitsa (below), the Ukraine-born pianist who has become a YouTube sensation, played a recital here last Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa

All four men were accomplished pianists as well as composers.

So you would have thought that nothing could go wrong.

But it did.

Big time.

From the time she took the stage, Valentina Lisitsa seemed ill-at-ease and unsure of what to do musically. What resulted was a very long concert with too much boredom and tedium.

Her default position seemed to be to play a lot, and then play some more. It turned out to be more like a marathon or a 19th-century “monster concert” than a typical piano recital. I don’t know what the intent of her program was except perhaps to show off her undeniable stamina.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

True, the “new media” phenom, who has a clear gift for self-promotion and who attracts avid groupie-like fans to her many YouTube videos and concerts, played for the better part of three hours and never seemed to break a sweat, even in the most difficult pieces.

But I have to concur with The Wise Piano Teacher who said: “It was the worst piano recital I’ve heard in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of them. I came home angry.”

The teacher wasn’t alone.

Except for a few of the miniature intermezzi by Brahms and a few of the ingenious etudes by Schumann, the piano playing seemed disjointed and the music too often lacked musicality.

Now, my instinct is to be generous and to make allowances. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Or maybe she felt ill or sick. Or maybe she has been overbooked or underrehearsed in recent weeks.

I do know that I have heard Lisitsa play much better, though she seemed at her best when she accompanied the gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn (below), who perhaps gave her some interpretive direction.

hilary_hahn

The Ear kept thinking of the response by Vladimir Horowitz (below) when somebody asked him why he didn’t take the second repeats in sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or why he didn’t play late sonatas by Beethoven. “I don’t want to bore the audience,” he said.

Vladimir Horowitz

Lisitsa showed no such concern for the audience. In fact her program, her stage manner and her playing all seemed listener-unfriendly. At times, her recital even seemed condescending and disdainful of the ordinary listener.

Valentina Lisitsa at keyboard 2

As a critic, I have to call it as I hear it. But I take no joy in writing this. There are few enough solo piano recitals in Madison these days, and I had really looked forward to this one. Rarely do I want to walk out of a concert of any sort, especially a piano concert. But this time I did want to walk out -– and I did leave early, during a Franz Liszt encore that was his arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also saw some other serious music fans walk out even earlier.

As for the all-Romantic program itself, here are some snapshots or mini-critiques:

The “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven (below): This great sonata was frequently reduced from a tempest to directionless wind by dropped or missed notes and choppy interpretation as well as by inattention to dynamics. It just didn’t make sense intellectually or emotionally -– and it is a great masterpiece of emotional depth. And certainly her playing of the same work in a live concert in Paris in a YouTube video at the bottom is better than what I heard live here. 

Beethoven big

The “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann (below top): Decca has just released an 85-minute recording (below bottom) of Lisitsa playing these pieces plus the complete Chopin etudes. She seems drawn to etudes, perhaps because they often favor fingers over music. And this woman has fingers and technique to spare, even if she lacks musical ideas. imagination and something to say.

Schumann photo1850

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Selected Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms (below): She didn’t stick to the program, and didn’t announce the changes to the audience. She played 14, but after a while they all ran together and it seemed more like 114. Better she should have played a set of just three or four intermezzi as a quiet interlude –- which was their original intended purpose. But instead she too often rushed through them. We missed the poignant melodies and harmonies, the autumnal soulfulness of late Brahms, to say nothing of the careful construction and counterpoint he used.

brahms3

Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below): The Ear thinks Lisitsa knew she has confused and lost her small audience when she went from the long Brahms set directly into the Rachmaninoff sonata. I heard some audience members wonder about what they were hearing – where Brahms had stopped and Rachmaninoff had begun. This sonata is a hard piece to hold together, and it didn’t help that she favored big noise over music, big chords over subtle voices.

rachmaninoffyoung

All in all, and despite a standing ovation — for her strength and brilliance, one suspects — The Ear found it a night to forget. I have heard Valentina Lisitsa (below) in better form and I wish I knew what happened here.

“Was she annoyed that the house wasn’t full?” someone asked. Maybe, although such an attitude would be highly unprofessional and too peevish or diva-like.

But I do know that when she next appears in a solo recital, I will think twice -– more than twice -– about attending.

That is too bad for me and too bad for her, too bad for the audience and too bad for the presenter.

Lisitsa_Valentina_2

But everyone’s a critic.

What did others of you who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital think?

Did you judge it a success or a failure?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Listen to wrong notes played by great pianists.

October 12, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, The Ear offered a blog post about stage fright and performance anxiety.

stage fright

It was written by someone who knows: Concert pianist and polymath Renaissance Man Stephen Hough (below), who is also a writer, painter, composer, photographer, culture critic and more.

Hough_Stephen_color16

But even the greatest musicians can -– and do — mess up.

So today is a follow-up.

Here is a link to a YouTube video with some pretty messed up notes and whole passages by some of history’s greatest pianists, virtuosos and technical wizards.

They include Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz (below) and Artur Schnabel – along with the actual scores to show you what is being muffed.

Vladimir Horowitz

There was no recording technology back then, but it makes one wonder what Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt might have sounded like off the page when they played. Or even such famed keyboard virtuosos as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

After all, in the same video the great Arthur Rubinstein (below) even explains how he faked an entire difficult Chopin etude and dumped a whole batch of deliberately played wrong notes into it during a public concert — and still won rave reviews from the critics!

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

It also puts a frame around the picture, and suggests that maybe we should simply worry more about the music and less about the notes. Performers just have to learn to accept failure! Perfection is beyond any of us.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

If you know of other examples, or have personal experiences to share, let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and composer Franz Liszt work well together. Both are haunting creators. Here is a chance to hear how as you read.

September 7, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

As longtime readers of this blog know, The Ear is a loyal fan of the Japanese writer and novelist Haruki Murakami (below).

haruki murakami

I have had a longstanding bet with friends that the prolific Murakami will win the Nobel Prize “this” year. But so far, a decade or more later, I am still waiting — as, I suspect, he is since he has won other major prizes.

So The Ear says: Let’s get on it, members of the Nobel Prize committee in Oslo. What are you waiting for?

Longtime fans also know that I am NOT a big fan of Franz Liszt (below). He wrote some great music that I like a lot. But he also wrote a lot of second-rate music that I don’t like a lot. What is good, I find, is very good; and the rest too often strikes me as melodramatic pieces full of self-exhibitionistic pyrotechnical keyboard tricks and gimmicks.

Liszt photo portrait by Pierre Petit 1870

But recently the contemporary Japanese novelist got me to appreciate one piece by the 19th-century Romantic Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso.

The work is called “Le mal du pays,” or, roughly translated, “Homesickness,” and comes from the first of three books, and the first year of three, of Liszt’s generally subdued “Years of Pilgrimage: Book I — Switzerland.”

Not surprisingly it is featured, referred to and analyzed repeatedly in Murakami’s new novel the “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (below, published by Knopf), in which the meanings of home and belonging are explored in many different ways. The piano music is a kind of thematic summary of the plot, the setting and the characters.

Murakami Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki book cover

The Liszt work, which runs about six or so minutes, is a curious piece, less showy than many and full of the kind of strangeness, disjointedness and mysteriousness that Murakami treasures and so effectively conveys in his writings.

The piano piece perfectly matches the novel, its plot and characters and tones, in the music’s eerie chromaticism, in its insistent repetition, in its austerity and lack of sensuality, even in its identification with what is empty or missing and its plain old weirdness.

The haunting music embodies the book and may have been inspired it in part. Not for nothing is Murakami known as The Japanese Kafka, and the Liszt music is worthy of that equivalency.

The two works of art deserve each other, as I am increasingly finding out, and work well together.

I am now about fourth-fifths of the way through the novel, which has been No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction for several weeks. It certainly has me enchanted and under its spell.

Murakami often refers to Western culture, classical and pop, and especially to classical music and jazz. (He once ran a jazz bar in Tokyo.)

In other works such as “Kafka on the Shore,” Murakami even seems something of a connoisseur of Western classical music who has compared works and various recordings of them, by Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach and others. In fact, Murakami himself could be said to have spent his own years of pilgrimage journeying through Western culture as well as fiction writing.

This time Murakami, who has excellent taste and deep knowledge or familiarity, favors a performance by the late Russian pianist Lazar Berman (below).

File written by Adobe Photoshop? 4.0

Other fans of both Murakami and Liszt have set up a website where you can listen to a YouTube recording of Berman’s playing ‘Le mal du pays.” (You can also find quite a few other recordings of it, including one by Alfred Brendel (below), on YouTube, which is also featured in a secondary role in Murakami’s new novel.)

Brendel playing BIG

And I have also found a Hyperion recording by British pianist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant-winner Stephen Hough that I like a lot:

Hough_Stephen_color16

Here is a link to the Lazar Berman version, a second one that was set up by a Murakami fan:

Have fun listening and happy reading.

And please let us know what you think of the Liszt piece, Murakami’s newest novel and your favorite Murakami novel.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Learn more about the waltz — and other forms of dance music — and why it endures in classical music. Then tell The Ear about your favorite waltz and waltz composer.

June 22, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear spent much of the past weekend listening to dance music.

To the tango, to be specific, the new tango or “nuevo tango.”

He heard eight or 10 sexy and bittersweet tangos that were played superbly by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, which was certainly helped by the presence of pianist Pablo Zinger who played with New Tango master and Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla. (You can still catch the two BDDS concerts with tangos — and much more — TODAY at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. at the Hillside Theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green. For details, visit, www.bachdancinganddynamite.org)

I will have more to say about those concerts later this week.

But all that South American dance music brought to mind what is no doubt the most popular dance of Western European classical music: the waltz. (Below are people dancing the Viennese waltz.) Music is so tied to the dance.

viennese waltz

The great music blog “Deceptive Cadence” that is written by NPR recently featured an overview of the waltz with history and some very fine sound samples.

I thought the history was a little skewed or thin. Personally, I wish the blog had said how the waltz -– which by now we so identify with aristocratic nobility and with elegance – evolved out of rougher peasant dances, including the landler. You can hear the similarities especially in Landler movements by Franz Joseph Haydn (below) and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Haydn

I would also like to have heard a wider range of waltzes and waltz composers. Sure, there is the Strauss family. But some of my favorites are the smaller waltzes by Franz Schubert (below top) and Frederic Chopin (below bottom) to say nothing of Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich among others.

Franz Schubert big

Chopinphoto

But the waltz is a huge subject and the NPR essay is a fine starting point.

Here is a link to the NPR posting:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/06/18/322930952/a-rhythm-thats-waltzed-away-with-hearts

And here is a popular YouTube video, with more than 1.3 million hits, of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing one of The Ear’s all-time favorite waltzes, which has just the right hint of bittersweetness, by one of the all-time great waltz composers, Frederic Chopin.


Classical music: The Ear gets totally immersed in two-piano music by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and loves it. Now he looks forward to “drowning” this weekend in European concertos and South American tangos, then piano trios and works for piano, four-hands.

June 18, 2014
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks of it as the Berlitz Method of learning a language, only applied to music.

It’s called “Total Immersion.”

Each June, the Madison-based chamber music ensemble the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society always offers a lot of variety of outstanding music over three weekends, each featuring two different programs in three different venues. (This year’s theme, for the 23rd annual season is “23 Skiddoo.”)

23Skiddoo logo

But one thing I especially look forward to is that usually there is a chance to immerse yourself in a special style or genre or sub-category that you often don’t hear. That allows for added enjoyment and informative comparisons.

This summer’s immersion started this past opening weekend. This coming weekend and the weekend after that promise an immersion in Western European classics, especially concertos, and in Latin American music, especially Argentinian tangos.

For more details and information, including programs and tickets, visit:

www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

Some of that kind of immersion stems from the BDDS programming philosophy. Some of it probably also comes from the fact that BDDS hires guest artists for a weeklong stint and so must seek out repertoire to spotlight them.

In any case, this is the summer not only of Latin American music but also of two-piano works.
This is not to say I didn’t love the outstanding performance of Claude Debussy’s sublime Violin Sonata, his last work, by New York violinist Yura Lee (below) because I did.

Yura Lee in Debussy Sonata BDDS 2014

And I also liked the BDDS debut of Icelandic soprano Disilla Larusdottir (below) in her superb readings of “Five Popular Greek Melodies” by Maurice Ravel and especially contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ Renaissance-based “L’arte della danssar” (“The Art of the Dance,” 2011).

Disella Larusdottir at TRaliesin BDDS 2014

I also thoroughly enjoyed the vivacious and captivating Introduction and Allegro for Flute and Piano by Carlos Guastavino with BDDS co-founder and co-artistic director Stephanie Jutt (below), who is also principal flute of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Stephanie Jutt in Gustavino at Taliesin BDDS 2014

Personally, The Ear is generally less enthusiastic about harp music, so the Celtic-themed sonata by Arnold Bax left him feeling half-hungry, despite a terrific performance (below) by Stephanie Jutt and the gifted guest harpist Heidi Krutzen. Even the Quartet by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach struck me as not especially inspired, but rather a pretty run-of-the-mill Classical work that, despite a fine performance, has charms but not genius.

Heidi Krutzen at Taliesin BDDS 2014

Stephanie jutt and Heidi Krutzen in Arnold Bax sonata BDDS 2014

To The Ear, the true stand-outs stand-outs of the first weekend were Jeffrey Sykes, the pianist who co-founded and co-directs the BDDS  with Jutt and who teaches at the University of California-Berkley; and guest piano virtuoso and Van Cliburn Competition prizewinner Christopher Taylor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, who has a national and international reputation.

jeffrey sykes

ChristopherTaylorNoCredit

And The Ear, himself a devoted amateur pianist, sure got an earful of great, first-class piano playing through four very difficult works for two pianos.

Such concerts are not easy to stage. To get two pianos on stage at The Playhouse in the Overture Center and the Hillside Theater famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring Green involves a lot of difficult and expensive logistics.

But it was done, and the results were terrific.

Critic John W. Barker thought so too. Here is a link to his review for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42978&sid=2d270176d08b03b104e01230f4e31d17

Two PIanos at Taliesin BDDS 2014

As almost always happens with BDDS, there were pleasant surprises.

I really didn’t think I would love Maurice Ravel’s popular and over-programmed “Bolero.”

But I did.

Jeffrey Sykes was completely right when he said that the two-piano version is drier and more modernistic, more like the work of Igor Stravinsky, than the better-known orchestral version, which has its more old-fashioned charms and colors as the melody bounces less percussively around various sections. (You can see for yourself in a YouTube video at the bottom. Let me know if you agree or disagree.)

On the other hand, it was something to see the insistent rhythms make the always physical and impressively dynamic Christopher Taylor  (below) rock out and to watch how a single repetitive note gradually worked up to five-finger chords.

Christopher Taylor rocks out

There was 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s biting and percussive Variations on the famous theme by Niccolo Paganini that was also used by Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

There was Ravel’s “La Valse,” a grandly elegant and overblown nostalgia trip to the society embodied by the waltz as it came to its chaotic end in World War I.

And in the end there were Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last composition that is filled with luscious melodies, infectious rhythms, unusual harmonies and astonishingly virtuosic and precise playing. (The two-piano version was premiered by Rachmaninoff himself and Vladimir Horowitz. Now THAT would have been something to hear and see!)

Jeffrey Sykes and Christopher Taylor at Taliesin BDDS 2014

Now the two-piano part of the BDDS season is over. But The Ear can’t wait for this coming weekend, which will bring a Concerto for Two Cellos by Antonio Vivaldi as well as the lovely Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart plus the great Clarinet Trio by Johannes Brahms and selected tangos by Astor Piazzolla with tango pianist Pablo Zinger (below), who performed with Piazzolla’s band, from Argentina.

Pablo Zinger at piano

During the week there will be piano trios by Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonin Dvorak and performed by the exceptional San Francisco Trio; more tangos by Piazzolla; and works for one piano-four hands by Darius Milhaud and William Hirtz with Sykes and frequent guest pianist Randall Hodgkinson, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.

San Francisco Trio 1

Randall Hodgekinson 1

The Ear intends not to miss any of the four programs in the two coming weekends. And neither should you.

They mean more immersion, even if it is not quite as total.


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