The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Your warhorses are my masterpieces — and I want to hear them

June 3, 2017
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ALERT: This Sunday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m., “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” will feature Madison keyboard artist Trevor Stephenson performing on a restored 1855 Boesendorfer grand piano. The program includes music by Chopin, Granados, Brahms, Wagner, Bartok, Debussy, Schoenberg and Satie.

You can attend it live for FREE in Brittingham Gallery No. 3 of the UW-Madison’s art museum. But you can also stream it live using the link on this web page:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-6-4-17/

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again when music groups announce their new seasons.

And it seems to The Ear that the word “warhorse” is again being tossed around a lot, especially by experienced listeners who use the term pejoratively or disapprovingly, in a snobby or condescending way, to describe great music that is performed frequently.

But more than a little irony or inaccuracy is involved.

For example, a some people have referred to the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms – scheduled next season by both the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — as a warhorse.

Yet The Ear has heard that symphony performed live only once – perhaps because programmers wanted to avoid the warhorse label.

The same goes for the iconic Fifth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, which will be performed next year by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below). It was a revolutionary work that changed the course of music history, and it is a great piece of engaging music. (You can hear the opening movement, with an arresting graphic representation, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here’s the irony: I have heard the Piano Quintet by Brahms, the Cello Quintet by Franz Schubert and the String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn – all great masterpieces — far more often than I have heard those “warhorse” symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. Can it be that connoisseurs usually seem more reluctant to describe chamber music masterpieces as warhorses? (Below in the Pro Arte Quartet in a photo by Rick Langer.)

The Ear is reminded of a comment made by the great Russian-American musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky (below): “Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is not great because it is popular; it is popular because it is great.”

So yes, I don’t care what more sophisticated or experienced listeners say. I still find the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Peter Tchaikovsky to be a beautiful and thrilling work that rewards me each time I hear it. It never fails.

Add to the list the popular symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the “New World” Symphony by Antonin Dvorak, several piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below), the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Jupiter” Symphony and Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And one could go on and on.

They are all great masterpieces more than they are warhorses.

Plus, just because a piece of music is new or neglected doesn’t mean that it is good or that it merits a performance.

Otherwise, you could easily spend the rest of a life listening to second-rate and third-rate works out of curiosity and never feel the powerful emotional connection and deep intellectual insight that you get with a genuine masterpiece that rewards repeated hearings.

Of course, some warhorses do leave The Ear less than enthusiastic The “1812 Overture” comes immediately to mind. Boy, do the crowds like that potboiler — on the Fourth of July, of course, when it has a traditional place.

But often enough your warhorse is my masterpiece, and I want to hear it without being thought of as a philistine.

It might even be that playing more warhorses — not fewer — will attract some new audience members at a time when music groups face challenges in attendance and finances?

It may not be cool to say that, but it might be true, even allowing room for new and neglected works that deserve to be programmed for their merit — not their newness or their neglect.

So-called “warhorses” have usually survived a long time and received many performances because they are great music by great composers that speak meaningfully to a lot of listeners. They deserve praise, not insults or denigration, as well as a secure and unapologetic place in balanced programming.

Of course, it is a matter of personal taste.

So …

What do you think?

Are there favorite warhorses you like?

Are there warhorses you detest?

Leave word in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson will unveil, play and explain a restored 1855 Bosendorfer grand piano on this Friday night.

May 12, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night, Trevor Stephenson (below), the founder and director of the Madison Bach Musicians, will unveil, discuss and perform on a recently restored his historic Bösendorfer Grand Piano (also below), dating from about 1855.

Trevor Stephenson standing with Bosendorfer

The event takes place in the Landmark Auditorium of the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Drive. The event includes with a lecture at 7 p.m. and a concert at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets available online at www.madisonbachmusicians.org and at the door:. They are $25 general admission; $20 for seniors; $10 for students.

Rebuilt over the last two years, the ca. 1855 Bösendorfer Grand Piano has a massive and entirely wooden frame without any of the metal insides of a modern piano–the result is an extremely complex and dark tone that suits the sensibility of most 19th-century piano music. Stephenson will discuss the restoration in detail.

Trevor Stephenson 1855 Bosendorfer collage Wein, Austria

Fittingly, the concert program will include works by Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Schubert and Johann Strauss Jr.

Trevor Stephenson will also discuss the rebuilding process and the overall character of this remarkable historical piano.

The specific program will be:

“Berceuse” (Lullaby) from the Dolly Suite, Op. 56, by Gabriel Fauré (1845−1924) with guest pianist Timothy Mueller (You can hear the opening charming “Berceuse,” along with the Spanish Dance, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posthumous, and Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frederic Chopin (1810−1849)

Sonata in C major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770−1827)

Intermission

Two Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands, Nos. 1 in G minor and 5 in F-sharp minor, by Johannes Brahms (1833−1897) with guest pianist Timothy Mueller

Suite Bergamasque  by  Claude Debussy (1862−1918): Prelude, Menuet, Clair de lune, Passepied

Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, by Arnold Schoenberg (1874−1951)

Moment Musical No. 6 in A-flat major by Franz Schubert (1797−1828)

The Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314, by Johann Strauss Jr. (1825−1899)


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