The Well-Tempered Ear

Which classical composer has helped you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

January 4, 2021
6 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The holidays are over and as we close in on marking a year of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, The Ear has a question:

Which composer has helped you the most to weather the pandemic so far?

The Ear wishes he could say Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin or Brahms. And the truth is that they all played a role, some more than others.

But The Ear was surprised by the composer whose works he most listened to and liked — Antonio Vivaldi (below), the Red Priest of Venice who lived from 1678 to 1714 and taught at a Roman Catholic girls school.

Here is more about his biography, which points out that his work was neglected for two centuries and began being rediscovered only in the early 20th-century and still continues being rediscovered to the present day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Vivaldi

The Ear isn’t talking about popular The Four Seasons although that set of 12 solo violin concertos has its charms and originalities.

The Ear especially appreciated the lesser-known concertos for two violins and the cello concertos, although the concertos for bassoon, flute, recorder, oboe, lute, trumpet and mandolin also proved engaging, as did the concerto grosso.

It was the 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky (below) – the modern pioneer of neo-Classicism — who complained that Vivaldi rewrote the same concerto 500 times. “Vivaldi,” Stravinsky once said, “is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form many times over.”

But then did anyone turn to Stravinsky – who, The Ear suspects, was secretly envious — when they needed music as medicine or therapy during the pandemic? 

Vivaldi was, in fact, a master. See and hear for yourself.  In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, RV 535,  performed by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Why Vivaldi? You might ask.

Well, it’s nothing highbrow.

The best explanation is that Vivaldi’s music simply seems like caffeine for the ears and sunshine for the eyes. His music isn’t overly introspective or glum, and it isn’t too long or melodramatic.

The melodies and harmonies are always pleasing and energizing, and the tempi are just right, although bets are that the music is much harder to play than it sounds.

In short, Vivaldi’s extroverted music is infectious and appealing because it just keeps humming along — exactly as those of us in lockdown and isolation at home have had to do.

Happily, there are a lot of fine recordings of Vivaldi by period instrument groups from England, Italy and Germany and elsewhere that use historically informed performance practices. But some the most outstanding recordings are by modern instrument groups, which should not be overlooked.

With a few exceptions – notably Wisconsin Public Radio – you don’t get to hear much Vivaldi around here, especially in live performances, even from early music and Baroque ensembles. If you hear Vivaldi here, chances are it is The Four Seasons or the Gloria. Should there be more Vivaldi? Will we hear more Vivaldi when live concerts resume? That is a topic for another time.

In the meantime, The Ear wants to know:

Which composer did you most listen to or find most helpful throughout the pandemic?

Leave your choice in the comment section with, if possible, a YouTube link to a favorite work and an explanation about why you liked that composer and work.

The Ear wants to hear.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

 


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Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs

June 19, 2017
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit: www.kyledjohnson.weebly.com

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:

http://bachdancing.org


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