By Jacob Stockinger
Little wonder that Hough was the first musician to win a MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant.”
The virtuosic Hough (below) wowed local audiences here a couple of months ago when he performed the dazzling Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saens with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
Recently, he gave an interview in which he talked about the importance of silence to musicians.
Along the way, he also remarked on and lauded the “thrilling” rise of Western classical music – shown in audiences as well as the huge numbers and high quality of professional performing artists, amateurs and students – in Asia.
Hough also talked about the role of composing for performers, why it is a valuable skill and whether the performer-composer tradition is returning. (You can hear Stephen Hough perform his own Piano Sonata No. 3 “Trinitas” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
The Ear found Stephen Hough’s interview engaging and informative, and hopes you do too.
Here is a link:
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 for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also provided the performance photos for this review.
By John W. Barker
The second of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s three public concerts, which took place on Tuesday evening, was a study in the old and the new, and the mingling thereof.
The program title was, in fact, “Viol Music, Then and Now.” The performing group was the Second City Musick Consort of Viols of Chicago (below) — three players from there, plus visitor Brady Lanier.
Much, but hardly all, of their contributions were consort pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries, although a certain number of transcriptions — ironically, of later music — were involved.
Three Fantasias for three viols by William Byrd and one by John Jenkins for four viols were prime specimens. Two pairs of examples from Henry Purcell’s Fantasias in 4 Parts represented a late contribution to the consort literature, but were probably intended — primarily, if not exclusively — for members of the violin family, not viols.
With the addition of countertenor Nathan Medley, groups of “consort songs” were presented: three by Byrd and one each by four different composers of the late-Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. These were capped by one of the favorite airs of Purcell, “Fairest Isle”— which is a part of his large “semi-opera” King Arthur.
The program’s centerpiece, however, was a new work by festival co-founder and co-artistic director, John Harbison (below), who won a Pulitzer Prize and has been a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow and who teaches at MIT.
The nature and the scoring of this work, The Cross of Snow, was defined by the patron who commissioned it. This was local businessman William Wartmann (below), who intended it as a tribute to his deceased wife, the painter and singer Joyce Wartmann.
It was understood from the outset that it would be written for countertenor and consort of viols, and that the texts set would come from 19th-century poetic literature.
The choice eventually fell on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who also lost his wife tragically, in a fire. The three poems set are: The Cross of Snow, Suspira and “Some day, some day.” All of them deal with the deep and enduring pain over the loss of a loved one. The three settings are framed by a Prelude and a Postlude for the consort alone. (You can hear the poem “The Cross of Snow” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
Harbison has a strong sense of tradition and a genuine sympathy for Baroque music. Still, in this composition he by no means attempts simply to imitate long-past styles. While he is interested in exploring the special coloring and harmonics of the viols, he also brings to them a lot of the playing techniques familiar from writing for modern stringed instruments, but alien to viols. Indeed, the instrumental role in this work could pretty easily be transferred from viols to modern strings.
Nevertheless, Harbison’s stylistic assimilations run deep. The five movements, and especially the quite contrapuntal Postlude, are built upon allusions to chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). And, quite wisely, the consort played transcriptions of three such pieces in conjunction with Harbison’s score.
Moreover, it was decided to perform Harbison’s new work twice, once in each half of the concert. This was most helpful in allowing a deepened appreciation of the emotional content of both the poetry and the music. The vocal lines are strongly etched, and were beautifully sung by countertenor Medley, a superb artist.
With the final program, on this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., the spotlight will be exclusively on Franz Schubert (below) — his “Die Schoene Muellerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter) song cycle and the famous “Trout” Piano Quintet — music in a world between the two evoked by this concert.
For more information, visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org
By Jacob Stockinger
Proposals range from making tickets cheaper and concerts shorter, stressing music education and community outreach, moving to informal concert venues like bars and coffeehouses, and programming more new music.
It is a good question to revisit today, when the 14th annual family-friendly Opera in the Park, put on by the Madison Opera at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on the far west side, takes place and will draw up to 15,000. Here is a link to a posting about the event with more details:
But such a discussion about audiences usually runs the risk of almost always underestimating and even insulting the contribution of older audiences. (The Sunday afternoon crowd at the Madison Symphony Orchestra comes immediately to mind.)
Not that we should ever stop looking for ways to attract young people. But isn’t it maybe a little like asking: How can we attract more blue hairs to young punk band or rap concerts? Maybe we just need different music at different stages of our life.
In any case, let us not forget to praise the immense contribution of older people or to be grateful for them.
That is the welcome and long overdue message of British pianist-composer-painter and polymath MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Stephen Hough (below), who has performed in Madison several times, in his blog for The Guardian.
Here is a link to his posting. Read it and see if you agree and leave a message in the COMMENT section:
What do you think?
The Ear wants to hear.
REMINDERS: This Saturday night from 6 to 10 p.m., the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will hold its annual “Art of Note” fundraiser at CUNA Mutual. Auctions, fine food and live music will be featured.
For more information visit: http://wyso.music.wisc.edu/artofnote/ and https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/classical-music-education-wysos-art-of-note-benefit-on-april-18-seeks-to-raise-50000-to-benefit-music-education-in-greater-madison-area/
Also: The Madison Bach Musicians presents two performances of “Pygmalion” by Jean-Philippe Rameau It’s a 1784 Baroque opera-ballet done in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.
The first performance is tonight with a 6:45 p.m. lecture and 7:30 p.m. concert. The second is on Sunday afternoon with a lecture at 2:45 p.m. and a 3:30 p.m. concert.
Internationally recognized UW-Madison early-music specialist Marc Vallon will direct a full baroque orchestra, dancers and an outstanding vocal cast as they tell the tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his beautiful creation—and then, through the power of Venus, the statue comes to life. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door.
For more information, go to: http://madisonbachmusicians.org/concerts/current-concert-season/
ALERT: At 2:30 p.m. this Sunday afternoon, in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will give its Spring Concert.
Admission for the public is $5 and will benefit music scholarships. Admission is FREE with an Edgewood College ID.
The Edgewood Chamber Orchestra will play under the director of Blake Walter (below, in a photo by John Maniaci). Included on the program are the Symphony No. 32 in G by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy and the Pulcinella Suite by Igor Stravinsky.
Also being performed is the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459, featuring pianist Stephanie Crescio (below), the winner of the Edgewood College Music Department Student Concerto Competition.
By Jacob Stockinger
Madison-based music publicist and activist Jon Becker writes:
Wisconsin’s Earth Day Heritage will be celebrated in music and words this Saturday, April 18, and on next Wednesday, April 22. (You can hear a short history of Earth Day in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Music broadcasts will feature the voices of the descendants of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Earth Day Founder U.S. Senator and former state Governor Gaylord Nelson, set to the symphonic music of Wisconsin composer John Harmon.
There will be several opportunities to hear a “sneak preview” of Earth Day Portrait, music celebrating Earth Day values, before its international release on CD later this year.
For the third year, the music will be “broadcast” in the Rotunda of Wisconsin’s State Capitol building (below). Listeners should gather at the bust of “Fighting Bob” La Follette (the East Gallery entry is closest).
On Saturday, April 18, the music will be broadcast 10 times on the half hour, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m.
On Wednesday, April 22 — which is Earth Day — there will be broadcasts at 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Earth Day Portrait is a symphonic setting of eco-moral texts of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder, former Wisconsin Gov. and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (below). For the CD recording, the words of these environmental legends were read by their descendants: William (Muir) Hanna, great-grandson; Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter; Gaylord Nelson Jr., son; and Kiva Nelson, grand-daughter.
Patty Loew, an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, narrated connecting texts that paint intimate, personal portraits of Muir, Leopold, and Nelson, while recalling their unique mutual connection to Madison, Wisconsin.
All this is woven together by the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. Members of the Madison Youth Choirs (below, in a photo by Karen Holland) recorded a call-and-response part that -– at concert performances -– is spoken by audience members.
Earth Day Portrait was composed in 2001 by John Harmon (below), who graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and who makes his home on the Wolf River, near Winneconne.
Harmon’s music was recorded in Glasgow by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, led by conductor Marin Alsop, the first conductor to win a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. London’s EMI-Abbey Road Studios produced the master recording. Voiceovers were recorded at Audio for the Arts in Madison and at Umbrella Studios in Los Angeles.
For the forthcoming Earth Day CD, Harmon’s composition will be paired with Hymn to the Earth, by American composer Edward Joseph Collins (1886-1951, below). Composed in Door County, and inspired by Wisconsin’s seasons and landscapes, Collins’s ode to nature also may well be the first Western classical composition to refer to our home planet as “Mother Earth.”
By Jacob Stockinger
Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) — too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?
What would Janet say?
Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?
I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.
But let’s localize the issue.
The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:
And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.
Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?
We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.
Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?
If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.
Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.
But should he?
It makes one wonder.
Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)
Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.
The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.
Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.
When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.
Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.
Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.
Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.
In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?
Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.
SO THE EAR WOULD LIKE TO ASK CONCERT ARTISTS: PLEASE ADJUST YOUR CONCERT FEES TO HELP SUSTAIN THE FUTURE OF YOUR ART.
Well, these are just some brain droppings.
The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?
Do they contribute to the wealth gap?
Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?
Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?
In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?
And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?
Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?
Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?
Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.
The Ear wants to hear.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.)
And I have also found a Hyperion recording by British pianist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant-winner Stephen Hough that I like a lot:
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.
By Jacob Stockinger
Two of the best sources for reading about classical music are NPR (National Public Radio) with its Deceptive Cadence blog; and The New Yorker magazine, which features Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Alex Ross (below) on its staff.
These days a lot of publications are figuring out how to “monetize” their websites and on-line stories since they are losing readers of printed editions.
Perhaps David Remnick, the reporter-turned-editor of the The New Yorker who has more than doubled the magazine’s circulation and inaugurated a series of best-selling books of story and cartoon collections, may have a new and unorthodox approach. He seems to be thinking “outside the box” and in reverse: Use the web to increase the profile, and profitability of the print edition.
That approach may mean opening up to FREE ACCESS some of the stories that will give people a taste of what they are missing if they do not subscribe to or regularly read the source.
Whatever the reasoning, The New Yorker has opened up its archives to classical music fans with five not-to-miss profiles and stories about high-profile musicians.
They include the Chinese phenomenon and superstar pianist Lang-Lang (below), who is often dismissed by critics as “Bang-Bang” for his Liberace-like flamboyance and unmusicality, but who remains the most sought-after classical pianist in the world. (At bottom, you can see and hear the opening of a BBC documentary about Lang Lang on YouTube.)
Others include the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is highly articulate about the world of singing and opera; the French woman and highly individualistic pianist Helene Grimaud, who aims for unusual interpretations; the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who is renowned for eschewing the customary path of virtuosity; and the famous essay on taking piano lessons “Every Good Boy Does Fine” by American pianist Jeremy Denk (below), who recently won a MacArthur “genius grant”; who has performed recitals twice in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and who will be releasing a book-length volume of his essays and postings on his acclaimed blog “Think Denk” this fall.
The weekend is a good chance to catch up on such reading. You will learn a lot if you read these stories.
And maybe you, like The Ear, will also become a loyal New Yorker reader. When it calls itself “the best magazine in the world,” it is not kidding.
That goes for politics, social trends, art and culture, and even poetry.
Here is a link, which also features some audio samples: