The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: With much of Wisconsin underwater from historic flooding, Britten’s opera “Noah’s Flood” seems timely. Can you think of other works inspired by floods and natural disasters?

August 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Right now much of Wisconsin lies underwater.

This past week has seen record-setting rain and historic flooding along with high winds and tornadoes that have left many towns and counties declared official disasters.

Then yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for the entire state. More rain and thunderstorms are predicted for all weekend and next week.

The flooding is not on the order of the deadly and destructive wildfires out west. But the situation seems nonetheless the kind of emergency or natural disaster that usually draws some kind of attention of the national media — on a smaller scale something like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria that devastated  respectively, New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico.  

But this time The Ear can’t recall seeing or hearing even mentions or 10-second spot reports about the flooding of a state capital on national news programs. Can you?

New programs always seem to focus more on weather stories when they occur on the coasts and in the south. And right now the media also appear preoccupied with offering ever more words about the deaths of Senator John McCain and singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

But the situation got The Ear to thinking and searching.

Are there works of classical music inspired by flooding and other natural disasters?

And he doesn’t mean just music inspired by and celebrating calmer and less destructive water such as George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ebb and Flow” Music.

One important discovery that met the criterion was the children’s opera, “Noah’s Flood,” composed by British composer Benjamin Britten (below) in the wake of his own personal and home experience with floods – as you can see in the YouTube video below.

Can you think of other works composed in response to a natural disaster?

If so, in the comment section please leave the names of the work and composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Here is an NPR interview with British cellist sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason and an encore presentation of his performance at the Royal Wedding last weekend

May 27, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

So far, at least in the United States, the 19-year-old British sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason (below) has been more talked about than talked to.

But on Saturday afternoon, NPR interviewed him for “All Things Considered.”

Some interesting facts about him and his blossoming career and his inaugural recording for Decca Records (below) came out of the six–minute discussion and questions by host Michel Martin.

Especially impressive was how all the children in his family are accomplished classical musicians. Here is a video of them playing music by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev together:

And in case you missed it the first around, also included is an encore presentation of the three pieces he played last Saturday at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Here is a link to the interview and the encore performance:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/05/21/613025939/cello-bae-sheku-kanneh-mason-wins-worldwide-fans-after-royal-wedding

And here is a YouTube video of Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing his own cello transcription of a the song “No Woman No Cry” by reggae legend Bob Marley, who was a mentor and inspiration to the young musician:


Classical music: UW choral groups and a jazz quintet join forces Saturday night for a FREE concert of world premieres to honor the bicycle

April 27, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is an announcement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music:

A FREE concert — called ”Free Wheeling: A Tribute to the Bicycle” – takes place this Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The UW Madrigal Singers (below) and Chorale, under the direction of Bruce Gladstone, will join forces with a jazz group.

The concert opens with five world premieres, written specifically for this concert.

“I was surprised, given the bicycle’s popularity, that there weren’t many choral works about bikes,” noted Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot). “It seems to be more the domain of the solo popular ballad or rock bands. There are loads of poems about bikes though, so I just commissioned new works from composers I know.”

There are two works from John Stevens (below), veteran composer and UW-Madison emeritus professor. “Toasting Song” is a rollicking number about the pleasures of both cycling and wine. “A Bicycler’s Song” takes a poem in praise of bicycles and cycling and sets it in a vocal jazz idiom reminiscent of the Manhattan Transfer.

UW-Madison alumus and former Madrigal Singer Scott Gendel (below) also provided two new works for this event. “She Waits for Me” is a lush ballad that celebrates the joys of love and loyalty, while “Little Things” offers us a cautionary tale of a cyclist’s visit to church one Sunday morning.

Carl Buttke, a current graduate student, composed the fifth new work for this concert, a picturesque tale of a memorable day spent in the Austrian Alps, “Cycling the Rosental.”

The program will also include a fast and fun work for women’s voices, “The Bike Let Loose,” by composer Edie Hill.

This concert occurs at the end of the School of Music’s Jazz Week by design, since the major work in the concert is scored for massed choirs and jazz quintet.

The singers are joined by the UW’s Blue Note Ensemble (below top), directed by UW professor Johannes Wallmann (below middle), for a performance of “Song Cycle” by Alexander L’Estrange (below bottom and in the YouTube video at the bottom).

The work was written in 2014 for the grand start of the Tour de France in York, England. Comprised of 10 movements, the work looks at the invention of the bicycle, the social changes that it wrought, and the joys that cycling offers to all.

It’s a charming and witty trip that is fun for the whole family, even giving the audience an opportunity to sing along.

The concert is free and all are encouraged to wear their favorite biking togs and join in the fun!


Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians, with dancers and guest vocal soloists, will perform a tragic Purcell opera and comic Bach cantata this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

April 2, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger’

This coming weekend the Madison Bach Musicians — an acclaimed local group devoted to period instruments and historically informed performance practices — will present a double bill that features the tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” by British composer Henry Purcell (below top) and the comic “Coffee” Cantata, BWV 211, by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom).

Both performances take place in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On Saturday, April 7, there is a 6:45 p.m.  lecture by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance.

On Sunday, April 8, there is a 2:45 p.m.  lecture by Trevor Stephenson followed by a 3:30 p.m. performance.

Purcell’s vivid and eloquent operatic masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas is based on the tragic love story told in Book IV of Virgil’s epic Latin poem “Aeneid”and is depicted in the 1815 painting (below) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

The performance of the Baroque opera uses a full baroque orchestra.

In addition there are three guest singers as soloists: Chelsea Shepherd (below top) as Dido; Elijah Blaisdell (below middle) as Aeneas; and Nola Richardson (below bottom) as Belinda.

Adding to the production are dance sequences, all coming together thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top in a photo by Luke Delalio) of the University Opera; Karen McShane-Hellenbrand (below middle) of the UW-Madison Dance Department; and Baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below bottom in a photo by James Gill).

J. S. Bach’s witty Coffee Cantata will add some mischievous fun to the program.

This work suggests that perhaps Johann Sebastian himself was a coffee enthusiast at a time when coffee was sweeping the Continent and often seen as a sinful new fad.  “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee….” sings Lieschen in an aria that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Bach even premiered and performed many of his works at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, which he frequented and which is depicted below in an 18th-century engraving by Georg Schreiber.

As usual, MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below) will offer his insightful and entertaining commentary on these two diverse masterworks in his lecture preceding each concert.

Tickets are $38, $35 for seniors and $10 for student rush tickets at the door if the concert is not sold out.

Advance tickets are available at the Willy Street Coops East and West. More information about the production and tickets can be found at madisonbachmusicians.org


Classical music: You Must Hear This: Violinist Hilary Hahn plays “Mercy” by Max Richter

March 26, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the gems in the 27 encores that violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned from 27 different composers a couple of years ago is “Mercy” by the German-born British composer Max Richter.

Hahn has played here several times, mostly at the Wisconsin Union Theater but also with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Although Max Richter’s Minimalist music has not been played in Madison as far as The Ear remembers, you might already know his name from the popular recording of his take on Vivaldi in “The Four Seasons Recomposed” or his more ambitious and most current project “Sleep,” which provides music for eight and a half hours of sleeping.

But The Ear confesses he had not heard this moving miniature called “Mercy” until recently, even though Hahn recorded it along with the other 26 encores with pianist Cory Smithe.

He likes it.

And so apparently do a lot of other listeners.

So it is something that is well worth using five minutes of your time to sample.

Write your comments, positive or negative, below.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018
3 Comments

ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/contemporary-chamber-ensemble/

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/02/13/585121135/classical-musics-greatest-love-stories-on-and-offstage

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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