The Well-Tempered Ear

Longtime friends organist Greg Zelek and Madison native and award-winning trumpeter Ansel Norris team up for a FREE live-streamed concert this Tuesday night

April 26, 2021
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two longtime friends and fellow musicians will team up this Tuesday night, April 27, to close this season’s organ concert series, sponsored in the Overture Center by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It will be live-streamed online because of the pandemic restrictions on attendance.

The concert features the critically acclaimed MSO organist Greg Zelek (below left) and Ansel Norris (below right), an award-winning trumpeter who is a native of Madison.

The program includes works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Samuel Barber among others.

The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. CDT. It is FREE but you must register. The concert will be available to registered listeners for unlimited access through May 31.

Here is a link to the MSO website where you can register. It also has more information about the program and biographies of the two performers: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/norris-zelek-2021-streamed/

Here is more background. It appeared in the latest issue of the email newsletter of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), of which Norris was a member for many years:

Ansel Norris and Greg Zelek first met in 2010 as high school seniors who had both been selected as finalists in the YoungARTS Awards. The YoungARTS Award is a big competition with just a small percentage of students selected for the $10,000 prize from the thousands of high school applicants. In classical music that year, 12 students became finalists and assembled in Miami for a week of master classes with internationally recognized arts leaders.

Ansel Norris attended as an outstanding trumpeter from Madison East High School and Greg Zelek attended as an outstanding high school organist from the New World School of the Arts in Coral Gables, Florida. 

We hit it off right away and it came to me later what a great story this was,” Norris (below) mused. “Greg had grown up in south Florida and now was living in Madison, and I had grown up in Madison and was now living in south Florida.

“You know, there really is a synergy with trumpet and organ. The sounds are produced in a similar way and the way the sounds blend together is really special. Even then, I imagined a concert together.” 

Ten years later, the two friends were dreaming up this concert when Greg was in Miami in February, 2020. And then the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Norris has distinguished himself as a solo, orchestral and chamber musician.

After graduating from East High School in Madison, he attended Northwestern University, from which he received a Bachelor’s degree in Music in 2016.  From there he attended Rice University in 2019. Twice he was the first-prize winner at the National Trumpet Competition and a winner of the New World Symphony’s Concerto Competition. Then, at 26 years old, he became the first-ever American prizewinner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition’s Brass division. (You can hear Norris perform in the competition’s semi-finals in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Playing as soloist with orchestras is a special pleasure for Ansel, and he has enjoyed performances in front of the Mariinsky Orchestra, New World Symphony and his hometown Madison Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. Also a chamber musician, Ansel won a Bronze Medal at the Fischoff International Competition with his friends from the Lincoln Chamber Brass.

Ansel Norris currently resides in Naples, Florida, where he enjoys an eclectic musical career with the Naples Philharmonic. In a place without cold weather, the Naples orchestra could potentially play music safely outside all winter. But Ansel shook his head, “For the most part we’ve been indoors. The orchestra gets tested for COVID each week and we play on a stage with musicians spaced 10 feet apart. HEPA filters are positioned everywhere. Playing 10 feet apart is just crazy. You absolutely cannot depend on the musical cues you were trained to depend on.”

Norris remembers growing up in Madison where there was a “fine legacy for trumpet players. It was so great I didn’t want to go away to Interlochen, even with a full scholarship.” He studied privately with John Aley and attended WYSO rehearsals on Saturdays, which he absolutely loved. 

And now this Tuesday, this 2009 Bolz Young Artist Competition finalist will be returning to the Overture stage with his good friend Greg Zelek, who are both amazing and accomplished young musicians.

As Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) writes: “Concerti of Bach and Haydn will bookend this program filled with music that is both written and arranged for this electrifying pairing of instruments. Mr. Norris’ remarkable technique and soaring lyricism will be on full display while our Mighty Klais both supports and shimmers in this exhilarating performance you won’t want to miss!” Register here for Tuesday’s concert! 


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Classical music: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed in Madison, is dead at 76

April 29, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Legendary American cellist Lynn Harrell (below) died Monday at 76.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Harrell performed in Madison at least three times – twice with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (2007 and 2011), in concertos by Lalo and Victor Herbert, and a recital with pianist Yefim Bronfman at the Wisconsin Union Theater (1994).

No cause of death has yet been given, but various sources say it was unrelated to COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic.

To know more about his remarkable life and impressive career, go to his biography on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Harrell 

Colleagues were quick to praise Harrell not only as a master musician – gifted with beautiful tone and sensitive, expressive interpretations — but also as a great teacher and a congenial man who made friends easily. He also cut promotional ads for National Public Radio (NPR) urging members to donate, as he himself did.

Here is an interview he did in 2011 with host Norman Gilliland for Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/lynn-harrell

Here is a link to an obituary from The Violin Channel that features quotes from many musicians who admired Harrell:

https://theviolinchannel.com/cellist-lynn-harrell-has-passed-away-died-obituary-rip/

And here are tributes from many of his colleagues for British critic Norman Lebrecht’s blog “Slipped Disc”:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/04/lynn-harrell-tributes-pour-in/

A prodigy who made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17, Harrell, who studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute, was renowned internationally. He later taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In 1994 he played a Papal Concert at the Vatican to mark the first commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. His performance there of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”  for cello and orchestra can be seen and heard at the bottom in the most popular of Harrell’s many YouTube videos.

 


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Classical music: The UW Schubertiade last Sunday afternoon explored the influence of Beethoven on Schubert with insight and beauty

February 2, 2020
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ALERT: In early editions of my last post, I mistakenly said that the UW Choral Union and the UW Symphony Orchestra will perform the Verdi Requiem on May 25 and 26. The correct dates are APRIL 25 and 26. The Ear regrets the error.

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most informative and enjoyable events of the Beethoven Year – 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – came early.

It took place last Sunday afternoon in the Collins Recital Hall of the new Hamel Music Center at the UW-Madison.

It was the seventh annual Schubertiade, and its theme was “Schubert and Beethoven: Influences and Homages.” A classic contrast-and-compare examination of two musical giants who lived and worked in Vienna in the early 19th century, the concert took place for almost three hours before a packed house. (Schubert is below top, Beethoven below middle, and the sold-out audience below bottom)

The annual event is organized by co-founders and co-directors UW piano professor Martha Fisher and her pianist husband Bill Lutes (below, greeting the crowd), who also perform frequently, especially as outstandingly sensitive and subtle accompanists.

They make the event, with audience members sitting onstage, look easy and informal. But it takes a lot of hard work.

The two sure know how to choose talent. As usual, all the singers and instrumentalists – UW alumni and faculty members (below) — proved very capable. The concert cohered with consistency.

Nonetheless, The Ear heard highlights worth singling out.

Baritone Michael Roemer (below) sang exceptionally in “An die ferne Geliebte” (To the Distant Beloved) by Beethoven (1770-1827). His voice brought to mind the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the inviting tone and direct delivery of the first song cycle ever composed. It was also the one that inspired the younger Schubert (1797-1828) to compose his own song cycles, and you could hear why.

Soprano Jamie Rose Guarrine (below right), accompanied by Bill Lutes and cellist Karl Knapp (below center), brought warmth, ease and confidence to the lyrical beauty of “Auf dem Strom” (On the River).

Tenor Daniel O’Dea (below) showed how Schubert’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” – the same Romantic poem made famous in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” – ended up much more lighthearted than the more familiar, serious and intense symphonic version.

Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes, who also sang as well as narrated and accompanied, showed complete blending and tightness in Schubert’s first published composition: “Eight Variations on a French Song.” It was for piano, four-hands – a sociable genre that Schubert favored and wrote a lot of.

Soprano Jennifer D’Agostino (below) sang Schubert’s song “Elysium” in which it is unclear whether it is a pastiche or a parody of Beethoven, who remained a mentor until Schubert died at 31. Could that ambiguity point to Schubert’s maturing sense of himself and his own art as compared to Beethoven’s?

One year after Beethoven’s death – Schubert was a pallbearer — Schubert put on his only formal public concert of his own work. That was when he premiered his Piano Trio No. 2, the bravura last movement of which was played by Bill Lutes with cellist Parry Karp and first violinist David Perry (below), of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet.

Then all four members of the Pro Arte Quartet (below) – with violist Sally Chisholm and second violinist Suzanne Beia – played the last two movements of Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the work that Schubert requested to hear performed as he lay on his death bed in his brother’s Vienna apartment.

Of course there were other moments that pleased and instructed. There was a set of four songs – one coupling sung by mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple (below) — in which the same texts were set to music by both Beethoven and Schubert.

We got to hear Beethoven’s final song, “Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel” (Evening Song Beneath the Starry Firmament).

Then there was the heart-wrenching “Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) by Schubert, again beautifully performed by Jamie Rose Guarrine. (You can hear “Hymn to the Night,” sung by Elly Ameling, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So in the end, what were the big lessons, the takeaways from this year’s Schubertiade?

One lesson is that for all his more familiar symphonies and concertos, his string quartets and piano trios, his piano sonatas and his sonatas for cello and violin, Beethoven was also a much more accomplished song composer than the public generally knows.

But for The Ear, the biggest lesson of all is that despite Beethoven’s deep influence, Schubert retained his own special voice, a voice full of unforgettable melodies and harmonies, of lyricism and empathy.

And using a mentor to find, refine and retain one’s own identity is the highest homage any student can pay to a teacher.

 


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Classical music: TONIGHT one longtime, generous classical music patron honors another with a FREE public, all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West

October 19, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Think of it as a well-deserved, heart-felt homage that one longtime and generous patron of classical music is paying to another patron who also happened to be a close personal friend and a professional colleague.

The public is invited to join in the one-hour, FREE all-Schubert memorial concert at Oakwood Village West (University Woods), at 6205 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, at 7 p.m. TONIGHT, Oct. 19.

Here is an invitation from retired University of Wisconsin-Madison chemist Kato Perlman (below) about the concert she is sponsoring and funding in memory of her close friends:

“Join flutist Iva Ugrcic (below top) and pianist Thomas J. Kasdorf (below middle) for a FREE All-Schubert Evening and enjoy the music from one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, Franz Schubert (1797-1828, below bottom).

“This concert is in memory of the late Irving and Millie Shain. Irv Shain (below) was a chemistry professor and then a long-serving Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, and a great supporter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

“He played the flute himself and these Schubert pieces belonged to some of his favorites for the flute.

“He also established, in addition to his long-running annual Beethoven piano sonata competition, a woodwind and piano competition. Both Iva Ugrcic and Thomas Kasdorf are previous winners.”

The program is:

Sonata in A Minor, D. 821 (“Arpeggione”)

Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blumen” (Withered Flowers) from “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter), D. 802 (Op. 160)

Ständchen (“Serenade”) from Schubert’s final song cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song), D. 957 (heard in the YouTube video below)


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