The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which music best commemorates Memorial Day?

May 25, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2015.

graves with flags USE day

Try as I might, The Ear cannot think of better music to remember and memorialize the wounded and fallen than the “Nimrod” Variation from “Enigma” Variations by Sir Edward Elgar (below).

Edward Elgar

The holiday is much more complex and psychological than the usual funeral march permits.

It was, after all, the same music that the American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used in “The War” — about World War II — played in a hauntingly wonderful solo piano arrangement that I simply cannot find on YouTube.

But the music’s meaning, and the way it affects you, can change in the instruments performing it.

So today I offer three ways or versions, arrangements or transcriptions.

First is the very popular YouTube video of the original orchestral version featuring Daniel Barenboim conducting in Carnegie Hall the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – with its great strings and brass — in memory of his predecessor, music director and conductor Georg Solti.

Second is a stirring rendition by a military brass band in England playing on Remembrance Day 2011 before Queen Elizabeth II:

And the third version is an a cappella choral version using the Latin lyric “Lux Aeterna” (Eternal Light) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that was put together in England.

All versions are moving and attest to the emotional power of Elgar’s music.

But which version do you like best and why?

And is there other music you would play to commemorate Memorial Day?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera conductor John DeMain talks about the role of the piano in his career and his upcoming performances this weekend with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann songs and romances, and of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands.

June 19, 2013
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Madison and the rest of the world know John DeMain (below, in a  photo by Prasad) primarily as a symphony and opera conductor who is also the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

But this acclaimed conductor, who won a Grammy Award for his recording of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” and who conducted the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” at the Houston Grand Opera, started his career as a promising pianist, as did many other conductors including Leonard Bernstein (with whom DeMain studied conducting), Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Eschenbach. Aside from the pipe organ, the piano is generally considered to be the most orchestral of instruments — so it really comes as no surprise that so many conductors started out as pianists. (To be fair, still other well-known conductors began as string or wind players.)

DeMain will return to the piano this weekend when he splits accompanying duties with pianist Jeffrey Sykes (below), the co-founder and co-director of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. DeMain and Jeffrey Sykes will perform jointly in Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann,” Op. 23, and will take turns accompanying other performers in songs and romances for flute. (BDDS is also performing  a second program of  songs and chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Ned Rorem, Frank Martin and Gabriel Faure.) 

Performances are on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Playhouse (below top) and on Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. in the Hillside Theater (below bottom) at the landmark and historic Frank Lloyd Wright compound Taliesin in Spring Green.

BDDS Playhouse audience

taliesin_hillside2

The rest of the “love triangle” program of music by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (both below) and Johannes Brahms includes many songs by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann and Brahms; Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano, Op. 94; Clara Wieck Schumann’s Three Romances for flute and piano Op. 22. For more information about the program, performers and tickets, visit http://www.bachdancinganddynamite.org

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

DeMainOpera

Most of us know you as a conductor, even though you have played continuo and conducted smaller operas from the keyboard for the Madison Opera. You started out as a pianist. Can you tell about your time as a pianist from starting lessons through competitions and Juilliard and the decision to go into conducting?

I started studying piano at the age of six. I was a pretty good sight-reader and loved to accompany myself singing. When I was a senior in high school, I won the Youngstown Symphony Society’s piano competition, competing with college-level students.

After making my debut playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the symphony, I decided to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and studied for six years with Adele Marcus (below, as a demanding young teacher and performer). I played chamber music with the concertmaster of the Juilliard orchestra, and I won a competition in New York for young artists.

Adele Marcus

Why did you want to change from being a pianist to being a conductor, especially an opera conductor? (What are the comparative pleasures and pains of each, the piano and conducting?)

Conducting sort of coexisted side by side with playing the piano. I was conducting the grade school band in fourth-grade when the teacher didn’t show up. It came to me naturally.

While at Juilliard I took some elective conducting courses with Jorge Mester (below). I earned my tuition for Juilliard by conducting musicals for big summer stock theaters in the summer.

063040_PasadeSym_LKH_

After graduating from Juilliard, I continued to play chamber music in New York and played a few recitals. I always had a big love for the theater, opera and singing as well as the symphony orchestra.

Certain opportunities were presented to me in the field of conducting, starting with the Norwalk Connecticut Symphony, followed by a lengthy stint with opera for public television.

That, in turn, led to a summer studying conducting at Tanglewood, and to beginning my professional career at the New York City Opera as the second winner of the Julius Rudel award. (Below is a photo of Julius Rudel, the Austrian native who led the New York City Opera for many years and also guest conducted at the Met and elsewhere .) My duties included 35 hours a week of coaching and playing rehearsals. So the piano was always part of my professional life.

julius rudel

My next position was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (below) as associate conductor. In addition to conducting the orchestra on tour and having my own subscription concerts, I was playing chamber music with members of the orchestra on our chamber music series.

St Paul Chamber Orchestra

How did the piano affect your conducting and what did you bring to conducting from the piano? And inversely, what does conducting now bring to your playing the piano?

Playing the piano is a great aid in learning orchestral scores. One can study both the melodic content of a work, but even more importantly the harmonic structure of the music.

Conducting makes me aware of pulse when I’m playing the piano. And, of course, there is the imagining the piano part as though it would be orchestrated, much the same way we imagine the human voice singing an orchestral melody.

I think the life of a pianist can be more isolated, considering the many hours of practicing that is required. While studying orchestral and operatic scores is also isolated and private, there are so many rehearsals with the cast or the orchestra that makes for a more social experience. That seems to suit me better.

John DeMain conducting 2

I suppose the trite answer is we do something because we can. I love the big playground of opera and symphony, and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But making music at the piano with fellow musicians is such an important part of a complete musical life.

In the orchestra world, we like to say that all music is chamber music. Listening to each other and responding accordingly is a great part of great orchestral playing. One develops this playing chamber music. Playing one-on one with your fellow musicians where everyone is equal. I feel blessed that I can participate in all of this from time to time.

Do have any comment about Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann” for piano, four-hands, and other works you will be performing this weekend with Jeffrey Sykes for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society?

I certainly don’t play the piano publicly that frequently anymore, and I haven’t for years. But I thought this would be a rewarding experience, which is turning out to be just that. I have big respect for what Stephanie Jutt (who is principal flute with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) and Jeffrey Sykes (below) have created. And I love Jeffrey’s pianism.

jeffrey sykes

The Brahms theme-and-variations (played by the Kontarsky brothers in a YouTube video at bottom) are rather extraordinary, and we are enjoying ourselves immense putting them together. They are harmonically quite daring at times, and of course deal in the finality of life as well. It should be an interesting concert.


Classical music: He is gifted, gay and French-Canadian. Could Yannick Nezet-Seguin be the next superstar conductor? A lot of people think so. Read why in The New York Times and hear his Carnegie Hall concert last night on NPR. What do you think?

January 18, 2013
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

We all remember the superstar conductors, conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. Even the popular media recognize them as celebrities. More recently, one could conceivably put Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev in the same category.

The most recent one to capture and hold the public’s imagination in such a charismatic way was Gustavo Dudamel (below), the passionate and almost hyperactive young man who emerged from poverty in Venezuela through the “El sistema” that offered free classical music education. He now is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

dudamel-wild49754818

Probably the latest candidate for that elite club is Yannick Nezet-Seguin (below, in a photo by Torsten Kjelstrand/NPR with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Carnegie Hall concert of Shostakovich, Ravel and Szymanowski that was webcast last night by NPR.) And I can think of no better introduction to him than a long profile by The New York Times critic and writer Daniel J. Wakin that appeared last weekend.

carnegie_philly

Where do you start to convey his personality? The fact that the 35-year-old French-Canadian native of Montreal is openly gay? The Tahitian Turtle Tattoo? The great reviews? The pumped-up chest that earned the short 5-5 conductor  the nickname of Mighty Mouse from renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato? His quick rise to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the ranks of top, world-class orchestra conductors?

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

I doubt he will be known as Yanni, since Yanni is already reserved for the New Age composer, who also is often dubbed “Yawni.”

But the boyish conductor just might become a one-name celebrity – something like “Yannick” in the way that Bernstein was “Lenny.” He certainly projects that kind of intensity and he sure gets results.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin in aciton

You can make up your own mind about the man who hopes to rebuild the special “Philadelphia Sound”  of Eugene Ormandy that relied on strings the way the Chicago Symphony Sound relied on brass.

Here is a link to the profile:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/arts/music/yannick-nezet-seguin-is-at-the-top-of-the-orchestra-game.html?_r=0

And here is a link to the archived webcast of last night’s concert in Carnegie Hall. Be sure to read the “Read More” button: 

http://www.npr.org/event/music/169038777/the-philadelphia-orchestra-at-carnegie-hall

If you heard him, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Georg Solti conducted an orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano: In a straight-forward, muscular and non-neurotic way while the recording industry was its peak.

October 26, 2012
11 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last Friday marked the 100th birthday of famed conductor Sir Georg Solti. Decca will be issuing nine special multi-CD releases (including a deluxe edition of Wagner’s “Ring”) plus a special 2- CD set with previously unreleased recordings to celebrate the centennial event. And justly so. Solti (below, with a Grammy) won 32 Grammy awards – more than any other musician who was classical, pop, folk, rock, jazz, blues, whatever.

An import from Europe, where he was a refugee from Hitler and spent World War II exiled and jobless in Switzerland, the Hungarian-born Solti, who studied with Bartok, restored the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to world-class preeminence during his 22 years leading the ensemble.

And Solti’s career, which spanned more than 60 years, was aptly described and analyzed in a terrific story last Friday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition” by musician and music critic Miles Hoffman. His main thesis was that Solti was as his height just as the recording industry was also at its height. The needed each other and complemented each other.

That made Solti’s complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — which took several years and was the first in history — as well as of the complete symphonies and concertos by Beethoven (below), Brahms and Mahler something special, not just another addition or alternative. The same goes for his many opera recordings. He was the complete musician.

I would add only one more observation: The secret to Solti’s artistic and commercial success was that he allowed us as listeners to hear the music rather than himself.

That was why he could succeed in almost any period or composer or work, from the Baroque era through the Classical and Romantic periods and then into the 20th century,  and why soloists of so many different temperaments and styles liked to work with him. Solti was not a specialist, but a musical chameleon in the best sense.

An affable and dashing, cosmopolitan and compassionate figure who liked to socialize and who played tennis until well into his 80s, Solti seemed the epitome of the healthy musician. His style was marked by a certain naturalness and muscularity, though not by unbalanced brute force. His tempi never seemed exaggerated in either the fast or slow direction, and his use of flexible rubato always seemed judicious and never self-indulgent.

Moreover, he always made music exude both sense and beauty, qualities too rarely exhibited in some contemporary music and performances. As a result, he was not an unmistakable interpreter or egotistical stylist like, say, Vladimir Horowitz or Wilhelm Furtwangler. His performances never seemed fussy, precious or pretentious. Instead they just seemed, well … normal, the way that the music must have been meant to sound. In short, he was always both reliable and, with rare exception, exciting. I would put him in the company of someone like Bernard Haitink.

Let me put it this way: George Solti conducted the orchestra the way Arthur Rubinstein played the piano. You always felt secure and refreshed in the presence of the music’s greatness, not the player’s personality. The beauty he made just seemed so normal and such an integral part of life that it became part of the so-called “natural world.” And that is the way great art should be: inevitable and a force of nature.

Maybe you will agree with me, and maybe not. But in any case, you should read the story.

Here is a link to that NPR story about Georg Solti:

http://www.npr.org/2012/10/19/163224678/recordings-reissued-on-soltis-100th-birthday

Did you ever hear Solti live? What did you like or dislike?

What is your favorite recording with Solti conducting (he also played the piano)?

What do you think made Georg Solti a great conductor?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: You can lose a music competition and still be a winner.

June 8, 2012
5 Comments

ALERTS: Saturday brings two noteworthy events. First is a FREE Farmers Market concert from noon to 1 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square by Opera Unplugged, an outreach project of Fresco Opera Theatre. The program includes vocal and instrumental music by Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Wagner and others. Also, Marika Fischer Hoyt (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the violist with the Ancora String Quartet who also plays in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and with the Madison Bach Musicians, is starting a new career as a host for Wisconsin Public Radio. You can tune in to her debut Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. on WERN FM 88.7. She is an amiable and knowledgeable musician, and has chosen some great music to air.

By Jacob Stockinger

Earlier this week, I posted two stories that mattered to me personally more than I let on at the time.

One was story about the two young Madison teenagers – pianist Ariela Bohrod and Garrick Olsen – who are competing this weekend in the biennial International Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.

I think they are still picking straws to see who performs when today in the solo recital competition. Then come the chamber music performance and then finally the concerto competition.

I wish them well, and I am rooting for them of course. As I find out news, I will pass it along.

The other story was about a recent UW graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below) who played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here are links to the two stories:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/classical-music-news-two-madison-teenagers-are-competing-this-week-and-next-in-the-international-piano-arts-competition-in-milwaukee/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/classical-music-review-let-us-now-praise-amateur-music-makers-and-restoring-sociability-to-art-here-are-9-reasons-why-i-liked-and-you-should-attend-the-middleton-community-orchestra/

But competitions leave me feeling nostalgic with some unusual thoughts.

That is because once upon a time I was one of those gifted young teenagers. At 15 I was studying privately with a superb piano teacher at Yale University — his name is Donald Currier (below) — and when he died I wrote about him.  

Here is a link to the past:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/classical-music-obituary-yale-pianist-donald-currier-dies-at-91/

Now, I was 16 back then. And against my teacher’s wishes, I entered the young person’s concerto competition with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

He thought I wash;t ready and was correct. But I craved validation that I could go into music in a big way.

So I prepared Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op. 15 – which is really the second one composed though the first one published.

It is a great piece, as you can hear at the bottom from pianist Murray Perahia and conductor Sir Georg Solti with the London Symphony Orchestra.

I listened to favorite recordings. I studied and played the score. I found another pianist to play the reduced orchestra part and I practiced it. Even my reluctant teacher allowed me a run-through with him testing me on piano entrances and memorizing.

And then on a Saturday morning I went to Yale University’s Sprague Hall (below) and played for the jury that included conductor Frank Brieff – and lost to a young woman a couple of years younger who played the Mozart concerto I mentioned above.

When I tell people that I lost a concerto competition when I was 16, I invariably get a very sympathetic reaction of “I’m so sorry.”

I was sorry and saddened at the time too.

But in retrospect, I see that I really didn’t lose – though at thar time every aspiring young classical pianist dreamed or conquering a competition in the same glorious way that young Van Cliburn (below) conquered Moscow, America and the world won the first Tchaikovsky Competition and became a national hero and international sensation.

But in fact by losing I found out two important things about myself

First, I found out that although I had talent, I didn’t have THAT kind of great and overwhelming talent that all but assures success is a very competitive career. (Someone recently told me that your chances of making it as a concert pianist these days are less than being a U.S. senator – and there are only two of them from any one state at any one time.

Second, I found out – through the very unpleasant experience of debilitating stage fright – that I did not have the temperament for public performance.

They were tough lessons to learn. But it was better I learned them at 16 rather than at, say, 21, after I had gotten my degree at a conservatory. (And I had been admitted to one of the country’s better conservatories.)

So I went on to a different career in teaching, in French and literature, and in journalism. And I keep my piano playing as an avocation, rather than a vocation, as a hobby that brings me and some others sim,ense satisfaction.

So here is my lesson that young competition entrants may not want to hear:

First, you will learn important lessons about your non-musical self. Losing can, in the long run, make you a winner.

And finally, it is a great lesson – especially for pianist who so often play solo — that music should be cooperative rather than competitive.

I would say I took a great deal out of the piano competition so long ago.

True, I lost. But I too ended up a winner.


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