The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Gift guide or gift or both? Critics for The New York Times name their top classical recordings of 2018, and so does National Public Radio (NPR)

December 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is “Panic Saturday” — another, newer theme day on the commerce-driven Holiday Consumer Calendar that goes along with Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber-Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

In past years, by this time many media outlets would publish the list of the top classical recordings of the past year. And The Ear has offered them as holiday shopping guides with links to the lists.

They seem to be running late this year, probably too late for many shoppers.

But recently the team of critics for The New York Times named their Top 25 classical recordings of 2018 that run from the 15th century to today (sample album covers are below).

This time, the website didn’t just reproduce something that first appeared in the printed edition. And something more than small snippets or excerpts are offered.

This time, the newspaper took full advantage of the electronic possibility of the web and used streaming to add hours of sound samples — some as long as 40 minutes – so you can see what you think of the recordings before you buy them. (Be sure to look at reader reactions and comments.)

It is a new and innovative way to do a Top 25 list – very appealing or entertaining as well as informative. Even if you don’t use it to buy anything for others or yourself, it can provide many minutes of listening pleasure. You can think of it as a gift guide or a gift or both.

Of course, there are also the usual short and very readable, to-the-point narratives or explanations about why the recording stands out and what makes it great music, a great performance or a great interpretation.

So there is a lot to listen to and help you make up your mind. The Ear has enjoyed it and found it helpful, and hopes you do too, whether you agree or disagree with the choice:

Here is a link:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-tracks-2018.html

Since this is the last weekend for holiday shopping before Christmas, here is the previous list – notice the duplications in the two lists — posted here, which was of the nominations for the upcoming 2019 Grammy Awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/12/08/classical-music-here-are-the-just-announced-grammy-nominations-for-2019-they-can-serve-as-a-great-holiday-gift-guide/

And here is the Top 10 list, which was chosen by the always discerning Tom Huizenga (below) — who explains the reasons for his choices — and which also offers generous sound samples, from National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. Also look for duplications:

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/18/677776208/npr-musics-best-classical-albums-of-2018

What recordings would you suggest? 

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Want to know how professional musicians practice? For the next 100 days on Instagram, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn will show you

August 13, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Many listeners and many amateur musicians often wonder: How do professionals do it? How do they practice to prepare for a performance? And what goes on in the practice rooms (below) of major conservatories and schools of music where tomorrow’s professionals study?

Of course the usual advice is to play slowly, to repeat difficult sections and to break a larger piece down into smaller parts.

But it is one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to see professionals follow their own advice and put it into practice. The Ear finds that it often inspires him to work harder and better, and more efficiently and satisfyingly.

Many performers seem reluctant to show up what goes into a career, to show the hard work of practicing that leads to apparently effortless performing.

Not Hilary Hahn (below, in a  photo by Peter Miller), the outstanding violin virtuoso who has performed several times at the Wisconsin Union Theater in some of the finest programs The Ear has ever heard.

Recently Hahn, the thoughtful three-time Grammy Award winner, started a series called #100daysofpractice on her Instagram account called “Hilary Hahn’s Violincase.” It is worth subscribing to for the short one-minute videos.

It is fascinating to see such a gifted professional slowing down passages of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean Sibelius – music Hahn already knows intimately and has recorded — and to hear and appreciate how she continues to practice making hard leaps, negotiating difficult transitions, adjusting bowing, correcting off-pitches and finding difficult fingering and hand positions.

If you haven’t seen and heard it for yourself, treat yourself. You will learn a lot that will help you to appreciate the physicality of making music and perhaps even help you to play it better yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.instagram.com/violincase/

And there is another sample in the YouTube video at the bottom:

What do you think?

Do you know of other sites on the web and social media that document professional musicians practicing? If so, please leave the address in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Why do symphony orchestras program so few women composers – and often none?

July 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The summer is rolling along.

Soon August will be here, and then September with the new concert season.

Looking over the programs, which feature new music and living composers, for the next season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), The Ear was reminded of a recent story.

It came from National Public Radio (NPR) and was about why so few women composers – or even no women composers – are being programmed at major national and regional symphony orchestras.

One major exception is Jennifer Higdon (below), the Curtis Institute teacher who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, who has been performed by the MSO and who is quoted in the story.

Here is a link to the story:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/06/19/617136805/the-sound-of-silence-female-composers-at-the-symphony

Now, The Ear likes the 2018-19 season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) for many reasons he will go into another time. He thinks it is a big improvement over last year, probably because it also celebrates the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as the artistic director. And it does open with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon. But you still won’t find major works by Higdon or other women composers.

Here is a link:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/18-19

And the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) also has an interesting and appealing season that includes some unusual features, including a recorder soloist and a repeat performance of a two-piano concerto that the WCO commissioned and premiered a couple of seasons ago. But, again, there are no women composers:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/2018-19-season

The UW Symphony Orchestra, which last year performed a work by Caroline Shaw (below), hasn’t yet released its new schedule of programs.

If The Ear’s memory is correct, certain local chamber music and vocal groups — the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Oakwood Chamber Players come to mind — do a better job at programming works by women and composers of color, although there is still room to improve.

And it sure seems to The Ear that Wisconsin Public Radio has started to make a concerted effort to program more works by women.

What do you make of the lack of women composers?

Would you like to see more works by women composers programmed — say, Higdon’s violin and viola concertos? (You can hear the slow second movement of the Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Do you think programming more women composers would boost, lessen or not affect attendance?

Do you have suggestions for specific composers and specific works?

The Ear wants to hear.


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: Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird performs Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Go early and don’t miss the half-hour student “warm-up” show

February 28, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Of course the main event at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. is the performance by the four-time Grammy-winning group Eighth Blackbird (below), which specializes in performing contemporary composers and new music.

Here is a link with more information –  videos, sound samples, reviews, the program and tickets — about the concert by Eighth Blackbird, which you can hear giving a Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio (NPR) in the YouTube video at the bottom.

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/eighth-blackbird/

But if you can, go to the concert early.

That’s because The Ear wants to give a loud shout-out to the Wisconsin Union Theater for offering a pre-concert concert of student players at 7 p.m. (There is also a free pre-concert lecture by conductor Randal Swiggum at 6 p.m.)

The students play Bach, Vivaldi, folk music and more. They set the mood and get you ready, kind of like the warm-up band at a rock concert. They also restore your faith in the future of classical music.

This time the young performers will be the Suzuki Sonora Strings of Madison.

They are fun, impressive and inspiring. The Ear remembers hearing violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn praise the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the Suzuki method for starting her on her own career. (Hahn, far right in the front, is seen below with the students.)

And below is a statement provided by Esty Dinur,  the director of marketing for the Wisconsin Union Theater, about why they feature the students — an idea that The Ear praises highly because he thinks it expands and rewards the audience as well as the students.

Music education needs more of this kind of public visibility that doesn’t isolate the young learners and performers but instead integrates them into the mainstream classical music scene.

Here is the statement by Dinur:

“We have so far hosted two groups of young musicians, the Suzuki Sonora Strings and the group known previously as Madison Music Makers and currently as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) Music Makers.

“The Sonora Strings (below, seen from the balcony) performed before the concerts by Hilary Hahn in the 2015-2016 season and Joshua Bell in the 2016-2017 season. They will be performing again this Saturday ahead of the concert by Eighth Blackbird.

“WYSO Music Makers (below) performed before last season’s Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (and I learned that one of the LAGQ musicians played with them—from behind the shell!). We may add other young musicians in the future.

“We view them as the artists, teachers, audience members and advocates of the future, the people who will continue loving and spreading the love of classical and other music.

“As such, we’re excited to have the ability to provide them with experiences by world-class musicians in a world-class venue.

“It is always wonderful to see them working so hard on stage, being serious and intent and excited. It is also wonderful to see their parents and families derive such pleasure and justified pride for the accomplishments of their kids.

“We are also delighted to be able to present groups that are more diverse than the usual classical music crowd. The future promises to be significantly more diverse than the present. It’s nice to be able to bring that future onto our stage and our audience right now.

“Reactions from all quarters have been great. The kids, their teachers and their families are all very appreciative of the opportunity. So far, I’ve heard nothing but good feedback from the audience which seems to enjoy both watching and listening to the youngsters and to appreciate the intent behind their performances.

“Finally, these shows may be taxing at times for our staff but they’re happy to shoulder the challenges in order to participate in this important work.”


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