The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Opera in the Park takes place TONIGHT!!! Start your week – and every day – with John Zeck’s “Composers Datebook.” Should Wisconsin Public Radio air it?

July 24, 2016
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ALERT: Because of weather and storms, the Madison Opera’s 15th annual FREE “Opera in the Park” has been postponed from last night to TONIGHT. Here is a link with more details about the event:

By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that last Sunday—at the start on a new week, just like today — The Ear suggested a FREE app for iPhones, iPads and iPods that offers a daily briefing on classical music.

It is called “Composer of the Day” and is put together by the music department at Wittenberg University.

Here is a link to that post and that app:

But there is another FREE  classical musical datebook that a loyal and knowledgeable reader of this blog suggested. The reader specifically praised the fact that it works on many different platforms.

It is “Composers Datebook” with host John Zeck (below), and it is done for Minnesota Public Radio and then distributed through American Public Media.

It seems similar to the format of “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor that, unfortunately, Wisconsin Public Radio no longer carries. But maybe WPR would consider including the “Composers Datebook” in its “Morning Classics” lineup? It certainly would be an educational addition, something just right for an alternative to commercial radio.

john zech

The two-minute daily diary streams nicely. It has many more details and examples about composers and includes sound clips of their work. It also does more than one entry for each day.

Turns out that the Ear already wrote about it in 2010. But it is worth a repeat visit to remind readers about this fine resource.

Here is a link, which you can bookmark or subscribe to, that post:“composers-datebook”-is-a-radio-gem-for-classical-fans-listen-to-it-read-it-get-free-podcasts/

And here is a direct link to “Composers Datebook.”

Try it.

See what you think.

And decide whether Wisconsin Public Radio should air it.

Then tell The Ear and his readers what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Should your playing slow down or speed up when an audience seems bored?

July 9, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

So there was The Ear, working at home and listening to “The Writer’s Almanac,” which airs weekdays at 1 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio.

And famed host Garrison Keillor was quoting composer Gustav Mahler (below) on the occasion of Mahler’s birthday.

Yes, the literary program moved beyond writers to musicians and other artists, scientists and historical events long ago.

Gustav Mahler big

Here is what Keillor (below)  said:

Garrison Keillor

Gustav Mahler, who was a famous and highly respected opera and orchestra conductor as well as a major composer,  said, “If you think you are boring the audience, go slower -– not faster.”

Hmm. Food for thought.

Now, that seems just the opposite of the experience so many of us have during practicing. That’s when slow repetition grinds us down and bores us and makes us long to speed up and hear the music up to tempo as it sounds in a real performance – as if we have already mastered the notes and can turn them into music.

So here is my question:

What do you think Mahler meant by what he said and why did he think playing more slowly works to relieve boredom?

And also: Do you agree with what Mahler said and can you think of a good example where slower is better and can you say why it is better?

The Ear wants to hear, preferably with a YouTube link to a specific performance of a specific work attached, in the COMMENT section.


Classical music: Bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile plays J.S. Bach – and earns raves.

October 27, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

The brilliantly eclectic mandolin player Chris Thile (below, in a photo by Branley Gutierrez) ) is hot these days.

I recently heard Thile – who has been a member of the bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers — live on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and also saw that Wisconsin Public Radio was offering his new recording as a gift during its recently completed — and successfully completed — fall pledge drive.

Chris Thile CR Branley Gutierrez

Thile’s new album for Nonesuch Records features his playing of solo violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thile says he was inspired directly by the recording that Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux did of the solo violin sonatas and partitas decades ago for Philips. It is performance that The Ear, along with so many other critics, put right on the top of the list.

Arthur Grumiaux

But Thile also says he was heavily influenced by Canadian pianist and legend Glenn Gould – well, which Bach player wasn’t, one way or the other? Thile especially names Gould’s second version of the famous “Goldberg” Variations as a milestone in his life and career.

Glenn Gould old

To be fair, I still prefer the original violin version to the mandolin version.

But I have to admit that Thile’s playing and interpretations of Bach’s difficult music are miracles unto themselves. And unusual transcriptions are perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic and practice of Baroque era composers as well as Romantics like Franz Liszt and Ferrucio Busoni. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of Chris Thile playing Bach’s complete Sonata No. 1 in G minor on the mandolin.

Here is a wonderful comprehensive and personal profile and background story to Chris Thile’s concert in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, written by Steve Smith, that appeared in The New York Times:

Here is an illuminating link to a conversation that Thile had on NPR with host Rachel Martin:

And here is a link to the New York Times’ review of that concert (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg) by critic Vivien Schweitzer:

Chris Thile at Zankel Hall CR Tina Fineberg for NYT

What do you think of Chris Thile and his mandolin Bach?

Do you have a favorite solo violin partita or sonata by J.S. Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical Music: Wisconsin Public Radio’s music app is first-rate and gets five stars. The Ear has it, and so should you. Plus, a viola duo performs a FREE concert of music by Bach, Bartok and Stamitz on Friday.

March 7, 2013

ALERT: This Friday from 12:15 to 1 p.m., the weekly FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Drive, Alexis Carreon (below top, the personnel manager of the Madison Symphony  Orchestra who also plays viola with the MSO) and Marie Pauls (below bottom), with pianist Stacy Fehr Regehr, play duets for viola by J.S. Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 6), Bela Bartok and Carl Stamitz.

Alexis Carreon

Marie Pauls

By Jacob Stockinger

Increasingly Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) is one of the few remaining public radio stations in the U.S that still highly values classical music and devotes many, many hours per day to it.

WPR Logo

And now if you have smart phone or an iPod Touch, you can take WPR with you.

True, you need wi-fi -– not just regular FM or AM radio reception. But wi-fi is increasingly prevalent and popular in both public and private places.

This app (below) helps solve the problem that I have always had with Apple and its FM radio capability, which for some odd reason, Apple includes only on the iPod Nano right now, not on the more expensive and fancier iPhone or iPod Touch, even though the hardware and software required for FM reception can’t be that big or difficult to include. (And how about getting a photo card slot on the smaller Airbook? Seems to The Ear like a bad and short-sighted decision on Apple’s part.)

Anyway, now if you have to interrupt a broadcast to go grocery shopping or do some other task, you can take WPR with you.

Wisconsin Public Radio app

I have spent some time experimenting with the app.

It is generally clear and easy to use, although the “program” screen didn’t list titles at one point, and then did.

The “Live” screen is, I find the most useful. It features the regular channel for classical music and news; the Ideas channel for talk and call-ins; and the 24-hours a day digital music channel. It has a pause, store and catch-up function. And the app also allows you to explore WPR schedules, state news stories and archives.

I used it while waiting in a dentist’s office. Also, recently I used it on a bus to Chicago and then once I was in Chicago when I couldn’t find something else I wanted. It worked great for not only music but also for “The Midday” stories, quizzes and guests with Norman Gilliland as well as “To the Best of Our Knowledge” and Michael Feldman. It also worked for bringing me  syndicated programs from National Public Radio: “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition” and “All Things Considered,” to say nothing of ‘The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor; “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross; “Exploring Music” with Bill McGlaughlin (below); and “From the Top” with Christopher O’Riley.

Bill McGlaughlin at  microphone

You can download the WPR app for FREE at the iTunes stores for MAC-based devices and at Google Play for Android-based smart phones.

Go ahead, give it a try. You can always delete it you don’t like or it doesn’t meet your expectations.

But I am betting that you will like it and that it will surpass your expectations. The Ear gives the app five stars out of five. If you use it, let me know what you think of the results.

Oh, and there are other radio apps I have that I used to stream classical music over the Internet.

One is the famed WQXR station in New York City. It features live broadcasts from Carnegie Hall that you can also access visa NPR’s blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

WQXR app

Closer to home, you can also try the app for WFMT in Chicago, the home base of Bill McGlaughlin.

wfmt app

Other public radio stations have specialized programs for vocal music, opera, piano music, music history and so on. You can check them out at the various app stores.

Are there radio apps you especially recommend?

The Ear wants to hear – and so, I suspect, do many of his readers.

Let all of us know in the Comments section.


Classical music Q&A: Pianist Shai Wosner talks about his new all-Schubert CD, emphasizing the dark side to Schubert and the diversity of styles from peasant dances to Mahler-like anxiety.

April 4, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Just over a year ago, the Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner, who studied with Emanuel Ax, made his debut in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Sewell, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4.

It was an impressive and poetic performance that announced Wosner as a major talent to watch. His career has continued to blossom, including an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. And I hope he will return to Madison soon, preferably for a solo recital or chamber music performance, though another concerto would be just fine.

Now the UK-based label Onyx has released his second CD. (His first recording, below, was an unusual and effective mix or splicing of Brahms’ Six Fantasies, Op. 116, and Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces.”)

 Now Wosner has turned to Schubert, for which The New York tImes praised him when he performed it in Carnegie Hall. He plays an all-Schubert disc that includes both big well-known works and smaller more rarely heard works. The  recording is remarkable both for his interpretations and his tone. Wosner’s Schubert is always ear-catching and ear-holding — no small feat in familiar works.

 An avid Schubert fan and an avid Wosner fan, I was intrigued. So I asked and Wosner (below, in a photo by Marco Borggreve) generously agreed to talk, via email, about his new recording:

How and why did you choose the individual pieces you recorded? It strikes me as, an unusual but appealing and contrasting mix of short dances and the rarely heard and rarely performed but beautiful Hungarian Melody coupled to the big Sonatas on D Major and C major?

I started with the D Major Sonata which – I think – is one of Schubert’s absolute masterpieces. One of the things that stand out in it is the use Schubert makes of the folk style, a certain kind of idyllic tone that somehow permeates the sonata.

In that sense, it’s not unlike Beethoven’s D Major Sonata, Op. 28. Beethoven didn’t call it “Pastorale” himself, but it has somehow earned that subtitle for good reason. The Beethoven sonata has, for example, folk-like drones in the bass and bag-pipe-like tunes in the last movement. The Schubert work has an ebullient tarantella in the first movement, and ländler-like Scherzo, as well as many tunes that seem to evoke folk songs.

But the difference is telling. Like in many of Schubert’s works from that period, there is a dark, unsettling current under those beguiling melodies, which makes the folk element seem much more poignant than in the Beethoven, almost like a symbol for another existence that would never come back.

In fact, Schubert wrote it in one of the happiest moments of his life, while he was physically surrounded by gorgeous scenery touring the Austrian countryside. But the question whether that “dark side” – which erupts in the huge second movement – is biographical or not is secondary because it is works that resonate universally that tend to survive and become indispensable.

I think if the feeling was that he is really “describing” what he was going through at the time, it wouldn’t be the powerful piece that it is. And that tension between the idyllic tunes and the disturbing undercurrents in this piece appealed to me very much as a starting point.

For the same reason, I felt that the C Major Sonata would be a fitting complement. On one hand it’s a very difference piece, and yet it makes very significant use of a folk-like tune, a ländler, in its second movement. Of course, the folk theme ties the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody as well.

Can you tell us briefly about what you would like listeners to take from or pay attention to in each of the four works on the CD?

Six German Dances and the Hungarian Melody: Both the German Dances and the Hungarian Melody are simple pieces, likely written for the two girls Schubert was tutoring at the time, but there is also something poignant about them, particularly with the Hungarian tune.

Sonata in D Major: For me, the most striking element of this piece is that it’s almost as if it is standing on its head. The most active and exuberant movement is in the beginning and the piece ends with a ruminating rondo that sort of dissipates into silence. I feel that there is really a sense of a life’s-journey in this work and while there is a clear ending to it, it is also somewhat mysterious and leaves us wondering.

Sonata in C major “Reliquie”: It’s an interesting case for debate. Only the first two movements are finished, and yet they work as a monumental pair just like the “Unfinished” Symphony does. Can an unfinished work acquire another identity after the composer left it aside? What is it that gives it that identity? Is it merely tradition, or is it simply that whatever’s left of it is so powerful that it makes up for the fact that there was supposed to be more? It’s probably a bit of both. In other words, like Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, the end of the slow movement became an ending to the piece as if the music demanded it, not so much by the force of tradition but by the force of the music itself, thus probably giving the piece a different identity from what the composer had originally intended.

Critics have praised your new Schubert CD. What attracts you to Schubert? And are there other works by Schubert – perhaps the last three sonatas, the Impromptus or the Moments Musicaux  – you hope to record?

I certainly hope to have an opportunity to record more of Schubert’s music. There are many things that I find irresistible in his musical world – the searching quality, his unique sense of time, his courage in reaching for the darkest places, his sense of doubt.

It seems that a lot of musicians have turned to Schubert lately – Emanuel Ax, Paul Lewis, Jonathan Biss, the Takacs and Jerusalem Quartets and Imogene Cooper among others. Is there something in the today’s culture that makes us – or you — particularly receptive to Schubert?

I don’t know if there is something specific in today’s culture, which in case is better judged from a certain distance anyway. And clearly Schubert transcends any particular period or genre, just like Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin do.

But I do think that Schubert’s music had a narrow but profound influence on later generations, particularly on the music of Mahler (below, another composer whose songs are central to his output), which has a lot of Schubertian elements in it, and through it on to Berg and beyond.

I think the anxiety that we associate with some of the modernists and expressionists has a lot in common with the anxiety that can be found in some of Schubert’s works (and not only the late ones), particularly when Schubert juxtaposes the idyllic and the anxious. Maybe the distant, seemingly-naive ländler of the second movement of the C Major Sonata isn’t all that far-off from the offstage lilting piano tunes of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1?

Schubert has been traditionally identified with a songful lyricism. And while I hear a lot of that in your performances, I also hear a new muscularity in your interpretation and in some of the others I mentioned above. Beyond Schubert’s admiration of Beethoven, is there some reason why our view of Schubert seems to be changing?

I don’t know. I think it’s natural that appreciation for an artist’s work changes over time and it doesn’t necessarily mean people like it more or less. For example, a composer’s work can suddenly seem different because of changes in the way his or her works are being performed, or because different pieces become more prominent.

Schubert himself is a good example, because for many years after his death he was still primarily regarded as a song composer and gradually his larger works assumed a more central role in the appreciation of his music. Or Brahms, for example, who was famously considered a conservative, even by his admirers and still in his lifetime while Schoenberg famously argued the exact opposite decades later.

I think while the songs are certainly one of the building blocks of his language, there are other important elements as well. In instrumental works, more than the song-quality perhaps, there is often a rather symphonic sensibility, even in the sonatas and chamber works, as reflected in the grand scale of many of his movements, the extended developments.

Perhaps the common thread through all of these is the idea of the journey, whether in a short song, or a big song-cycle (the Winter’s Journey) or one of the expansive structures such as in the late quartets.

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